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The Texas fertilizer plant explosion cannot be forgotten

Erich Schlegel/Getty Images - WEST, TX - APRIL 18: The remains of an apartment complex next to the fertilizer plant that exploded on April 17, 2013 in West, Texas. Around 14 people, including 10 first responders, were killed and more than 150 people were injured. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

Mike Elk is a labor reporter and staff writer for In These Times Magazine.

On Friday, as cable news networks sought desperately to fill airtime while waiting for the latest news in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, a friend asked me, “How come there’s no manhunt for the owner of the Texas factory, which did far more damage than the Boston bombers?” He was right to wonder.

The explosion of the West Fertilizer Co. plant on April 17 in West, Tex., killed 14 people, injured more than 160 and destroyed dozens of buildings. Yet unlike the tragedy in Boston, the Texas plant explosion began to vanish from cable TV less than 36 hours after it occurred. Marquee correspondents like Anderson Cooper were pulled out of West and sent back to Boston, and little airtime was spared for updates from Texas, even as many town residents remained missing. The networks seemed to decide covering two big stories was covering one too many, as if we journalists can’t chew gum and walk at the same time. The media’s neglect has greatly increased the danger that the explosion will quickly be forgotten, to the detriment of U.S. workers.

The coverage so far of the Texas disaster is a far cry from the gold bar of workplace safety reporting, set by Walter Cronkite in 1968 following the Farmington, W.Va., mine explosion, in which 78 miners were killed. Then, Cronkite camped out for four days in a field in the middle of winter and provided in-depth stories on the mine explosion and its aftermath. Cronkite’s impassioned journalism is widely credited by workplace safety advocates as inspiring the passage of the first federal mine safety legislation: the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. Since the legislation was enacted, the number of coal mining accidents have plummeted from 311 in 1968 to just 19 in 2012.

Over the years, though, the media have not kept up Cronkite’s dogged reporting on workplace safety — or on workers at all. This decline in coverage has created an environment in which companies may feel as if they can get away with massive safety violations because they will face little scrutiny from the media and the public. For instance, in 2010, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia killed 29 miners. In the year leading up to the explosion, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the mine was cited 458 times for safety violations, with 50 of those violations being “for willful or gross negligence”— a rate nearly five times the national average for a single mine. But after the disaster, this information and the story of the mine disaster vanished from the national discourse, and new mine safety legislation failed to pass even a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

For those of us who covered the Upper Big Branch explosion and have continued to report its investigation three years later, many of us fear that once again knowledge of why a massive workplace disaster occurred — knowledge that could save lives in the future — will be kept out of the public discourse because the media simply won’t cover it. Has a single worker employed at the fertilizer plant been interviewed on cable TV? Where are the crowds of reporters trying to find the owner of the plant? And what about experts being rolled out to discuss what caused the explosion and how those responsible for this disaster will face justice?

After all, while it remains difficult to deduce the motives of the alleged Boston bombers, it is not so difficult to postulate what was behind the explosion at the West Fertilizer Co.’s plant: the failure to follow the science of workplace safety. The plant had 1,350 times the legally allowed amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, yet hadn’t informed the Department of Homeland Security of the danger. Likewise, the fertilizer plant did not have sprinklers, shut-off valves, fire alarms or legally required blast walls, all of which could have prevented the catastrophic damage done. And there was little chance that regulators would learn about the problems without the company reporting them: Not only had the Occupational Safety and Health Administration not inspected the plant since 1985 but also, because of underfunding, OSHA can inspect plants like the one in West on average only once every 129 years.

So why did the media choose to cover around the clock a terrorist bombing that killed fewer people and is extremely rare while all but ignoring an industrial explosion that killed more people, is far more common and is far easier to prevent? Aaron Albright, who worked on failed mine safety legislation in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine as an aide to Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), joked on Twitter that the media opted to focus almost exclusively on the Boston bombings because the two stories were like “CSI/Mission Impossible vs. [a] PBS documentary.” The story of alleged terrorists with Chechen links seems far more exotic and threatening than does the story of a workplace disaster that would have been preventable if the company followed the rules.

Yet, death in the workplace is a much more real possibility for almost all Americans than is death at the hands of a terrorist. In 2011, 4,609 Americans were killed in workplace accidents while only 17 Americans died at the hands of terrorists — about the same number as were crushed to death by their televisions or furniture. One could argue that terrorists get more attention because they intentionally aim to kill people, but disasters like at Upper Big Branch are also the result of companies violating workplace safety laws.

With so many lives at stake, it is the duty of the media to, at the very least, dedicate as much reporting to West, Tex., as we do Boston. Indeed, the unbalanced coverage, some would argue, could have negative consequences across the board. As Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette, who has covered the Upper Big Branch mine explosion more than any other reporter, tweeted, “Terrorists want media attention, so we give it to them. Unsafe industries don’t want media attention — so we give that to them.”

 
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