The problem isn’t just that Texas laws and regulations are state of the art for, say, 1897:
West Fertilizer fell under the purview of at least seven state or federal regulatory agencies, each with its own objectives. None had primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of the hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate stored there or that of the workers or residents nearby.
Zak Covar, the executive director of the state environmental regulatory agency, has said his office is not responsible for tracking ammonium nitrate. He pointed to the Office of the Texas State Chemist. Tim Herrman, the state chemist, said his agency monitors whether fertilizers are labeled correctly and not their safety. “It’s fair to say we are not fire-safety experts,” he said.
Allowing the plant, a school and a nursing home to be in close proximity was a local zoning failure. It’s also likely that how the laws were written and the rules were promulgated resulted in gaps in the regulatory responsibility and authority. But like the case of the Gosnell abortion clinic–which wasn’t visited by state inspectors for seventeen years–the biggest problem isn’t laws and regulations, but whether and how they’re implemented and enforced.
The West plant was regulated by at least seven separate federal and state agencies, but most had not been in the plant in years; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had not been in the plant since 1985. It’s no surprise OSHA hadn’t inspected the plant; it has only 2,000 inspectors to ensure safety at seven million worksites. And as budgets are slashed at all kinds of state regulatory agencies, federal agencies are too cash-strapped to take over those responsibilities. Which is exactly what conservatives want: if they can’t block or overturn laws they don’t like, conservatives can undermine them by denying the funds necessary for their implementation and enforcement.
Conservatives usually oppose regulation and enforcement on the grounds of letting businesses do whatever they want. But there’s a broader principle driving their actions. Enforcing regulations costs money. And conservatives do not want to raise the revenue needed to protect the public safety if it would require higher taxes on their wealthiest supporters. After all, how many conservative millionaires live near a fertilizer plant?