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Tom Zirpoli: Reasonable ground for regulations

I think we can all agree that over-regulation stifles businesses, but too little regulation has the potential for great harm.

Having worked in the field of human services for many years, I've seen the results of poorly supervised nursing homes and residential programs for the disabled. When it comes to caring for the elderly and disabled, I'd rather have too much regulation than too little.

Community safety is another area where I'd rather see more than less regulation. The explosion of a fertilizer plant in Texas is an example of what happens when there is little or no regulation of a business or industry that has the potential of causing great harm to the community.

Many politicians today believe that government is evil and that government regulations are to be avoided at all costs. Some politicians have done everything possible to reduce staffing at federal and state regulatory agencies, and have even passed laws that prevent regulators from doing their jobs.

In an effort to help small businesses, Congress has given regulatory exemptions to many small businesses defined as having 10 or fewer employees, regardless of the purpose of the industry. Thus, while many businesses around our nation are engaged in potentially dangerous operations, as long as they can keep the number of employees low they can skirt safety regulations that may impact the rest of their community.

Meanwhile, experts view these small plants as more dangerous than larger plants because they may not have the resources necessary to keep their employees and community safe.

In many cases, business and industry profits have become more important than community rights and safety. When this happens, everyone ends up suffering and no one profits. Short-term gains frequently give way to long-term disasters.

The West Fertilizer Company that owns the Texas plant that exploded and killed between 35 and 40 people and injured hundreds of others recently completed an Environmental Protection Agency self-study. In their report, the company stated that their plant was safe and that there was no risk of fire or explosion. But, of course, ammonia-based fertilizers are a significant risk for explosion.

An explosion at another fertilizer plant killed more than 500 people in Texas City, Texas in 1947. And a truck filled with fertilizer was used in the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, killing 168 people and injuring 680 others.

Despite the dangers, a retirement community, two schools, an apartment complex and dozens of homes were built across the street from the Texas fertilizer plant. Many of these structures were destroyed by the explosion.

A visit to the plant in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Commission found that the plant did not have a plan to transport canisters of pressurized anhydrous ammonia stored there. It is believed that these canisters caused the large explosion when a fire in the plant heated and expanded the contents of the canisters. Without a plan or the ability to remove the canisters during a fire, the plant was doomed. Unfortunately, at least 10 firefighters died as they tried to contain the fires before the explosion.

Texas is noted for its anti-government attitude and the lack of regulatory oversight from state and local governments. In Texas, like so many other southern states, no government is good government. As a result, the EPA reports that while Texas is home for one-tenth of the at-risk toxic or flammable chemical plants in the nation, it accounted for almost half of the accidents for these types of plants over the last five years.

There are thousands of chemical plants in Texas. The AFL-CIO, concerned about employee safety, estimates that it would take 137 years for OSHA, with their current staffing levels, to inspect all of them.

For the safety of all concerned, there must be a middle ground for reasonable regulation, monitoring and inspection of these sites.

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