The Last Word
updated 4/25/2013 11:49:42 PM ET 2013-04-26T03:49:42

The West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion ignited 270 tons of ammonium nitrate last Wednesday. That's 1,350 times more than what should trigger safety oversight from the Department of Homeland Security.

Before 270 tons of ammonium nitratet exploded at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant last Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security “did not even know the plant existed,”  ranking Republican on the DHS House committee Bernie Thompson said Monday.

According to Reuters, 270 tons of ammonium nitrate is 1,350 times more than what should trigger safety oversight from the DHS. (For comparison, the West fertilizer plant had 135 times more ammonium nitrate on its premises than Timothy McVeigh used when he blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.) But the last full safety inspection of West plant was 28 years ago.

Why had regulation on this plant become so lax in the last three decades? MSNBC’s Alex Wagner blamed President George W. Bush on The Last Word Thursday:

“We celebrated the man’s presidency today at the opening of his presidential library,” Wagner said, “but if you look at what happened to OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], which is the organization which oversees workplace hazards and really has an eye out for the American worker, I believe 86% fewer regulations were issued under Bush. The man he appointed to head OSHA literally fell asleep on the job multiple times…the notion of regulation became a very bad thing under Bush.”

The “bad notion of regulation” was echoed by Texas Governor Rick Perry Monday in Chicago, on a trip meant to lure businesses to the Lone Star state.

“All business have to look at their bottom line,” Perry told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Taxes, regulation, legal system, workforce–that’s what government does. Government can either be a hurdle or it can smooth out the road. We think in Texas we smoothed that road out as good as anybody.”

On The Last Word Thursday, MSNBC’s Richard Wolffe pushed back against the ”smoothing out” of the regulatory road when it leads to unsafe work environments.

“You’ve got to ask yourself as governor, elected by the people in Texas, are you representing business interests–because that’s one measure of his success, right? [Perry] brags about how many business he’s pulled out of other states and therefore ‘created’ those jobs…that’s one measure of him. Another measure is: are your voters, your citizens, safe? When they go to work, do they come home at the end of the day?”

Investigators are still trying to determine what ignited the massive build-up of ammonium nitrate–theories include a small seed fire that could have burst into flame, or the sparking of another flammable gas called anhydrous ammonia–but nothing is confirmed. What’s certain is that the amount of ammonium nitrate present in the plant was an accident waiting to happen.

“The whole thing may have fallen through a number of regulatory cracks,” a federal official whose agency helped regulate the plant told The New York Times Wednesday.

Now those cracks have caused the deaths of at least a 14 people, with a final death toll still to come.

Video: Investigating the West, Texas explosion

  1. Closed captioning of: Investigating the West, Texas explosion

    >>> together you answered the call. you dropped your schoolwork, left your families, jumped in fire trucks . and rushed to the flames. and when you got to the scene, you forgot fear and you fought that blaze as hard as you could, knowing the danger, buying time so others could escape. and then about 20 minutes after the first alarm, the earth shook, and the sky went dark. and west changed forever.

    >> this afternoon, president obama attended the memorial service for the 12 firefighters and first responders who were killed in a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in west, texas on april 17th . a total of 14 people died in that blast. the president and mrs. obama met privately with the families after the service, which featured video eulogies and a reminder of what was really lost.

    >> our son, jerry chapman, was born april 7th , 1987 .

    >> words cannot express how much i'm going to miss my husband.

    >> i'm representing my dad, captain kenneth harris.

    >> i'm the wife of the volunteer firefighter , morris ridges jr. this is his 2-year-old son jamison bridges.

    >> i'm honored to have the opportunity to tell you about my brother, cyrus. and the amazing life he shined.

    >> kevin sanders was a husband, a father, a son, a grandson, a brother, an uncle and a cousin, a nephew, a co-worker and a neighbor, and a friend.

    >> federal and state investigators have not yet determined what started the fire which ignited the blast. records show the fertilizer plant had 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate , 100 times more ammonium nitrate than terrorist bomber timothy mcveigh used 18 years ago to blow up a federal building in oklahoma city . the blast was powerful enough to register as an earthquake and blew a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep. it leveled the fertilizer plant and homes within a five-block radius. this is what that blast did to a nearby apartment complex. and to a nursing home . and to a children's playground. and to the local school. in january, bp pleaded guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter for the deaths of 11 men who were killed in the explosion on the deepwater horizon rig in the gulf of mexico in april of 2010 . the company was sentenced, and a $4 billion fine and five years of probation was handed down. two of the rig supervisors have been charged and are awaiting trial for manslaughter, accused of disregarding abnormal high pressure readings. alex wagner , one of the benefits of a regulated economy, regulated workplace, government regulation , is that we have -- if those regulations are followed, virtually eliminated the deadly industrial accident . and to have this plant explode like this, not having been inspected in many years, the first place you have to go is where were the regulators.

    >> yeah. and the word "regulation" in this society is almost a four-letter word. that -- the unwinding of regulation in the workplace had a lot to do with the bush administration , lawrence. we celebrated the man's presidency today at the opening of his presidential library . but if you look at what happened to osha , which is the organization that oversees workplace hazards and really has the -- an eye out for the american worker, 86% -- i believe 86% fewer regulations were issued under bush. the man he appointed to head osha literally fell asleep on the job multiple times while he headed osha . the notion of regulation became a very bad thing under bush. and unfortunately, the story of what happened in west, texas is a story of what's happening to the american worker. who is now forced -- it's not just indignities, these are substandard wages they are making, these are highly hazardous conditions in many areas. i mean, and it's not just bp. this is the -- the workers in bangladesh who died in a fire making clothes for walmart. this is happening around the world. and it has to do with the way we treat the american worker and what we have done to unwind the safety mechanisms that are supposed to protect the american worker.

    >> so after this explosion, after these fatalities in this workplace, the governor of texas goes to chicago to lure business to texas . let's listen to what he says.

    >> all businesses have to look at their bottom line. taxes, regulation, legal system, work force . that's what government does. government can either be a hurdle or government can kind of smooth out the road. we think in texas we've smoothed that road out about as good as anybody.

    >> richard wolffe is very proud of smoothing out that road.

    >> yeah. and you have got to ask yourself as governor, elected by the people in texas , are you representing business interests? because that's one measure of his success. he brags about how many businesses he has pulled out of other states and therefore created those jobs, even though he pulled them out of another state. that's one measure of him. another measure is are your citizens, are your voters safe when they go to work. do they come home at the end of the day . are the volunteer firefighters safe, volunteer firefighters . isn't that the heart of a place, like west, texas ? so it's a very narrow view that rick perry has, what his job is. and i -- that is written large for republicans, i'm afraid, at the national level too. if their job is just to please the chamber of commerce , and that's just the national chamber of commerce , then they're doing a great, great job. but actually, maybe they also have responsibilities to voters who want health care that's affordable, who actually can buy the guns or whatever they want to do, and then vote for republicans. there are republicans who want to be safe when they're out fighting fires.

    >> alex wagner , i can only hope there is as much investigative energy of this case in texas as there is in boston for the tragedy that occurred there. there's a correct amount of investigative energy being brought to that. but these industrial cases are, first of all, treated as accidents instead of very suspicious possible manslaughter cases.

    >> yeah. i mean, you look at the -- what happened in boston was horrible. but lawrence, i think it's so right you're calling attention to this. because this week this story has been subsumeded by details from boston . and an important story, but this is an important story. and this is an important story, because the long-range consequences here are fairly significant. for not just the american economy , but who we are as a country and the way we treat each other. i think it is worth noting, another part of this is federal funding . and the administration has got to get on board. osha is so underfunded, they last inspected this fertilizer plant in the 1980s . at present, osha has so little funding, they can only look into one of these plants every 126 years. it's a joke. we have got to change the way we regulate.

    >> and lives are at stake in this case. richard wolffe and alex wagner , thank you both for joining me tonight.


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