Through the Looking Glass with the Chemical Industry

Two months ago, Bush signed yet another corporate-friendly, industry-lobbyist-written bill passed by the corporate-owned rubber-stamp Republican Congress. This one had to do with chemical companies making themselves secure against a terrorist threat. Yesterday – a Friday, natch (and the friday before Xmas, no less) – Michael Chertoff’s Homeland Security released the new Federal rules. Do they require stringent inspections? co-ordination with local authorities and First Responders? feedback from the public and local govts?

Don’t be silly.

The rules, scheduled to take effect April 4, closely follow the recommendations of the chemical industry and result from legislation President Bush signed into law in October.Companies would be required to assess their own vulnerabilities and provide the government with plans for fixing them under the new rules, which were released for public comment. Industry representatives welcomed their arrival. (emphasis added)

I’m sure they did. Thanks to the corporate puppets of the GOP once again abandoning their oversight responsibilities and a corrupt administration that turns its responsibilities over to anybody who pays it enough, the safety of the millions of people who live within range of a chemical plant has now been put into the hands of chemical plant owners infamous for their negligence when it comes to safety – or anything else that might cost them a dollar they don’t want to spend.

Tine after time we’ve seen example after example of the effect of Bush’s “volunteer” approach to industry oversight and if there’s one thing to be said about it on which all objective observers can agree, it’s this:


Given the opportunity to voluntarily clean up their act, the corporatocracy has almost universally taken it as a license to pollute, to remove worker protections, to dump toxic waste indiscriminately, and to ignore all safety and environmental improvements that would cost them more than $1.85.

  • The explosion of a waste water treatment plant in Florida that the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board says was a direct result of Florida’s new “voluntary” worker safety program.

    Florida is one of 26 states that lacks a mandatory program that meets OSHA standards, federal officials said. Only a few categories of public workers in Florida are covered by mandated safety standards, including correctional officers and firefighters. The state safety program was eliminated in 2000 and a governor’s executive order made such programs voluntary. ***

    Better training, construction of the system and maintenance of the flame arrester — all of which would have been required by OSHA — would have prevented the deaths, according to CSB investigators:

    Robert Hall, who headed the federal investigation, said the explosion may have been prevented if the corroded safety device on the methanol tank had been regularly cleaned or inspected. The device, called a flame arrester, is commonly used to stop an external fire from igniting chemicals inside a tank. At the Daytona tank, the bread-box-sized aluminum flame arrester, that might have cost less than $500, had corroded so badly that it had gaping holes where flames could pass through, he said.

    Flame arresters should be inspected regularly and cleaned of dirt so that they can be effective, Hall said. However, city officials had not cleaned or inspected this device since it was installed in 1993, he said.

  • Then there is British Petroleum, whose negligence of – seemingly – all regulations has resulted in explosions, massive oil spills, hundreds of deaths, some of the biggest fines ever levied against any corporation, and a culture of bottom-line worship in which “cutting costs” was all that mattered, and if it had to come out of the hides of its own workers or the people who lived around its facilities, so be it.

    The Wall St. Journal today reports on a series of internal “accountability reviews” of the 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers and injured 180. The Chemical Safety Board reported earlier this year that cost-cutting at BP had contributed to the accident. The interviews cited by the Wall St. Journal seem to confirm those contentions.BP had originally blamed the accident on workers’ failure to follow procedures and reassigned the plant manager, Don Parus. Parus didn’t have kind words for BP’s upper management. Parus said

    he had been ordered to cut costs by 25% as recently as 2005, according to notes of an interview conducted Oct. 12.He said he had given a slide show to [BP’s global chief executive, John]Manzoni during a visit by the executive in July 2004 showing BP and Amoco had “underinvested” at Texas City for the previous 10 years, according to the interview notes. He said he pleaded for additional funds, citing problem areas such as the poor condition of equipment, and he said he had “exhausted every avenue he had to get the funds and it remained a no,” according to the notes.

  • And of course there is the well-known story of how seriously coal-fired generating plants have taken the “voluntary” program to install cleaner scrubbers on their smokestacks to cut air pollution. NOT.

But never mind all that. The Bush Administration, so hell-bent-for-leather to disembowel the Constitution in the name of protecting us from terrorists, can’t be bothered (or is afraid) to demand accountability from an industry that has paid over $$$Millions of $$$ in bribes (labeled “campaign contributions”) into GOP coffers.

Let us now plunge down the rabbit hole with chemical industry PR flack Scott Jensen:

“They are following the structure that Congress outlined,” said Scott Jensen, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, which represents the largest chemical makers. “The idea here is to set a security level that they want these facilities to achieve, commensurate with the risk that each facility represents.” (emphasis added)

The “structure that Congress outlined” was written by him, so basically he’s all thrilled that the Republican Congress did what he told them to do. A couple of the people who more or less copied Scott’s memo on what the law should say into the legislation and then passed it (Susan Collins and Joltin’ Joe Lieberman) are, however, a tad unhappy with the way Chertoff interpreted it. Seems he took a couple of liberties they didn’t care for. Collins allowed as how HS might be “going too far in some areas, such as by assigning itself the power to preempt the legal authority of states and courts.”

Hmm. That would be bad. Only corporations are allowed to do that.

The upshot of all this is that chemical corporations get to assign an entry-level junior exec to an hour’s worth of “analysis” and another hour’s worth of bogus “planning” to satisfy the letter of a law so weak it needs crutches to stand up.

Companies would have to conduct background checks on employees and better control access or face possible fines of as much as $25,000 a day and the risk of being shut down. But they may also contest government disapproval of their security plans.

Background checks? They’ve been very conscientious about doing those when it comes to immigration, right? And since the Bush Administration has never “shut down” any business, no matter how illegal or dangerous its activities have been (BP anyone? Wal-mart? This govt didn’t even shut down Enron because Kenny-Boy was GW’s buddy), they don’t have much to fear on that front. And even if HS were to do the unthinkable and slap their wrists, the law gives them the power to drag that decision through the courts for years.

Feeling safer now, are we?

No, me neither.

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