Boston and West, Texas: Two Disasters, Both Unnatural

Six months after the “natural” disaster of Hurricane Sandy, which we deemed “unnatural” in our editorial,* the U.S. has suffered two unquestionably “unnatural” disasters, one of which is being treated as if it were “natural.” We are talking about the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, and the explosion and fires in the West, Texas chemical and fertilizer facility on April 17.

In Boston, 3 people were killed more than 170 injured, many seriously, all now expected to survive. In West, Texas, at least 14 were killed (they may still be digging through the rubble for the missing) and some 200 were injured. Also 75 nearby houses and a school were totally destroyed, a 50-unit apartment complex had its entire front wall ripped off, a second school and some workplaces were damaged, and the air and ground were polluted with toxic chemicals. Yet the Texas explosion got second billing in the news and is now barely mentioned at all, as if there were nothing strange and unnatural about people dying from the operations of their workplaces.

U.S. workplace deaths occur daily, largely unnoticed. They totaled 4,600 in 2011, the latest year reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s an average of 12.6 people dying every day.  Apparently, we are to consider these deaths as the unavoidable byproduct of capitalist production, which is touted as a good system. We generally don’t hear or think about the deaths except when a large number occur at the same time and place in a dramatic manner.

The West Chemical and Fertilizer Company, which is owned by Adair Grain Inc., had only nine employees. It did not manufacture products, but rather stored and sold agricultural chemicals and fertilizers to farmers in the area. These products included anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate, which become explosive under certain conditions. In the town of West, in spite of the well-known dangers of storing and transporting these materials, government regulation has been weak, and the town permitted houses, schools, and a nursing home to be built right next to the facility and storage tanks.

Reports make it sound almost as if the town were expecting a disaster. The director of the nursing home told The New York Times that the home had a well-rehearsed evacuation plan in case of a fire at the plant: “We were thinking of a fire, not an explosion,” he said (“Emerging from the Rubble in a Texas Town,” April 20, 2013, p. A12). The swiftness with which employees and volunteers responded to the emergency prevented even greater losses. One suspects that the people of West tuned into their police scanners and put on their pants at the same time, anticipating the need to rescue their neighbors from a plant disaster.

It seems that Texas has a particularly long history of industrial disasters dating back to the early days of oil production, and the state has been especially successful in resisting regulation. On April 16, 1947, on the Gulf Coast, several bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer on a ship caught fire and exploded. Nearly 600 people died and about 5,000 were injured in what is known as the Texas City Disaster. Yet not until 2011 did the U.S. government even propose oversight of the sale of ammonium nitrate, and that was 16 years after that same fertilizer was employed in the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, when home-grown right-wing terrorists killed 168 people.

In many other countries where workers have even less power than in the U.S., there is even less restraint on capitalism’s drive to maximize profits at the expense of workers’, neighbors’, and consumers’ health and safety. But again, we rarely hear about the daily deaths by fire of sweatshop workers in the “developing” world who die because they are locked inside the workplace with flammable substances. Only when 80 or 150 or 300 all die at once, as they have in recent fires in Bengladesh and Pakistan, do we hear about it and remonstrate with the U.S. corporations that do business with those factories.

Regarding Boston, we unequivocally oppose the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, whether with home-made bombs in Boston or U.S. military bombs dropped during imperialist wars and drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and many other places. So-called “collateral damage” by the U.S. military has killed tens of thousands of civilians in recent years, and continues daily. We oppose all bombing of civilians, not only because of the deaths and injuries, but also because, if these acts are carried out in the name of social and political change, they distract and disorient people from the real agents of change—their own mass self-activity (see discussion of this last point at http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/mhieditorial/support-libyan-rebels-while-opposing-u-s-nato-intervention.htm). Our condemnation of bombing goes not only for victims of imperialism abroad, but also for Americans—the threat of “terrorist activity” is both very scary, and an excuse for government repression of dissent, as we have witnessed continuously since Sept. 11, 2001.

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*The Hurricane Sandy editorial is at http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/mhieditorial/worst-ever-%E2%80%9Cnatural%E2%80%9D-disaster-hits-new-york.html  See also our discussion of the 2011 Japanese, 2010 Haitian, and 2004 Indonesian earthquakes’ “unnatural” devastation, at http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/mhieditorial/mhi-editorial-japan-suffers-triple-disaster-world-holds-its-breath-what-should-humans-build.html

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