Texas Fertilizer Plant Disaster: Little Coverage, Much of It Wrong

The West Fertilizer Co. explosion last week in West, Texas, took the lives of at least 14 and left scores injured and homeless. But the story was largely obscured by blanket coverage of  the Boston Marathon bombing. More than that, says legendary EPA whistleblower Hugh Kaufman, a guest on this week’s CounterSpin, what coverage there was often obscured  the real story. Here’s a transcript of Kaufman’s appearance:

CounterSpin: In his recent piece on the Nation‘s website, Greg Mitchell interviews you about the explosion in the town of West, Texas. Before we get to what’s missing in the coverage of the West disaster, tell us what the media is reporting.

Hugh Kaufman: The media is reporting the case as if it’s some sort of an industrial accident, when in fact the town of west Texas is blown off the face of the earth. The material that did all that damage was the same material that Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Oklahoma City building — the fertilizer, ammonium nitrate.

West Fertilizer Co. plant

West Fertilizer Co. plant explosion

CS: Two hundred seventy tons of it.

HK: That’s correct. So the amount of people harmed and the ramifications are incredible. Thousands of people every year die who work in dangerous industries, whereas only a few people die because of a terrorist bombing. And yet, there is nothing but a wall-to-wall coverage of Boston disaster around the same time as a town in Texas is blown off from the face of the earth.

Both situations are frightening but what’s more frightening is that the terrorists seem to be winning the war of the TV coverage. But there are thousands more people harmed and killed because of lax law enforcement of dangerous industries. The fertilizer industry is a dangerous industry.

CS: But you’re saying that this fertilizer explosion wasn’t just a matter of some regulatory oversight. You claim in Greg Mitchell’s piece that there’s perhaps criminal activity here.

HK: The company lied to EPA when they said that there is no risk of fire or explosion at the facility, but at the same time they told EPA that, they were honest with the state because they know the state wouldn’t do anything in saying that they had 270 tons of fire and explosive material, the ammonium nitrate. So they were honest with the state because they knew the state wasn’t going to do anything, but to the federal government and the Obama administration, they lied. And of course, the local fire department — not equipped to handle the type of emergency that that entailed — they didn’t have any respirators, they didn’t have any training how to handle that type of  fire.

CS: They did not know not to squirt water on that type of fire, even.

HK: Exactly. And they didn’t even know there was such a risk of an explosion.

CS: You also give some praise but many media outlets got the story wrong. Let’s have the bad first.

HK: I think the worst was the New York Times. The New York Times claimed that the company notified EPA that they had 270 tons of this explosive ammonium nitrate, but they did not notify EPA of that. In fact, they told EPA that the facility posed no fire or explosion hazard. The New York Times did not say that, and I think that’s probably the biggest problem.

Interestingly, Texas is a Republican state — a red state — and in fact, many of the leaders want to secede from the union, and they despise EPA — they want the EPA abolished. And yet the Republican newspaper, the Dallas Morning News, has probably has the best environmental coverage of the case, which makes it very ironic to me.

CS: You also pointed to Reuters.

Hugh Kaufman

The EPA’s Hugh Kaufman has played a role in exposing environmental scandals dating back to the 1970’s disaster at Love Canal

HK: Reuters did a piece where they implied and stated that EPA and OSHA do not have authority to regulate the facility or this ammonium nitrate, and that’s totally false. Again, you have the Reuters and the New York Times taking the public off the scent. Of course, MSNBC, CNN, ABC, NBC, Fox — none of the cable channels are covering the details. The only cable channel I’ve seen that mentioned the fact that this is law-breaking and they lied to EPA was on the Young Turks on YouTube.

CS: I think it’s still on Current TV too.

HK: Is it still on Current, yeah? And the Wall Street Journal has done very good coverage too. So you’ve got the Wall Street Journal on the right, Dallas Morning News on the right and Current on the left, doing the good coverage, and everybody in the middle doing no coverage or bad coverage. By the way, MSNBC did one good thing. They put on their website the sheet the company gave to the state of Texas that identified they did have 270 tons of the explosive material, so that was a good thing.

CS: I wonder if you could remind our listeners why coverage is important.

HK: I worked for the federal government for almost 50 years now. I was the captain of the Air Force in the ’60s during the Vietnam War, and I was one of the people who helped start EPA. So I worked on civil cases and criminal cases, I’ve been chief investigator, I’ve had just about every job at EPA. In fact, I was one of the people who started it. And if the news media communicates to the general public what’s going on, then that can give some help — protective cover — to government officials who want to do something.

Let’s take a look at the Texas case that we’re talking about. You’ve got the governor saying everything’s fine, don’t look here. You’ve got all the business owners and managers in Texas saying everything is fine, don’t look here. You know who the largest owner of fertilizer business in the world is?

CS: I think you’re going to tell me.

HK: The Koch brothers. So you’ve got the Koch brothers, who are the largest business owners of the business, lobbying — using their efforts — to deregulate even more of the fertilizer business. And not have everyone knows how dangerous it is. You have all of that power coming at you, especially when you can make unlimited campaign contributions. So unless the public knows something is wrong, you’ve got nothing to countervail that. I mean, the Koch brothers, in many ways, are more powerful than the president of the United States.

CS: I wonder if you could reflect on how the media has changed over the years. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, In These Times labor reporter Mike Elk reminds readers of the central role that network anchorman Walter Cronkite played in bringing about mining reforms after a disaster in 1968. Is that still possible today, do you think?

HK: No, not at all. What’s happened is, back when Walter Cronkite was there, the news business — thanks to people like Bill Paley, his boss at CBS — was not required to be a profit center. Nowadays, all the news businesses are profit centers. On top of that, unlike then, you have allowed unlimited campaign contributions. So big money like Koch industries, etc., have much more influence over the news business than they had, back when Walter Cronkite was there and back when Bill Paley was there at CBS. And then, he was one of the leaders of the industry. Now, it’s all money, money, money.

CS: You had something to say about Mike Elk’s  op-ed in the Washington Post.

HK: Mike Elk’s piece — everyone should read that, as well as the Nation story — was phenomenal. But there’s a reporter at Charleston Gazette who covered workers’ safety for many years, Ken Ward Jr., and his quote at the end of Mike Elk’s piece was fabulous. So let me read it, as best as I can. “Terrorists want media attention, so we give it to them. Unsafe industries don’t want media attention–so we give that to them.” And that’s exactly what’s going on today, in the coverage of the two disasters last week.

UPDATE:  Joshua Schneyer of Reuters responded to our Hugh Kaufman interview with the following complaint:

Dear Editor,

In your report of April 26 entitled: “Texas Fertilizer Plant Disaster: Little Coverage, Much of It Wrong,” your interviewee says that a story by Reuters (which you link to), “implied and stated” that EPA and OSHA had no authority to regulate the facility or ammonium nitrate.

Your piece is wrong and so is your interviewee. The Reuters article did not state that. On the contrary, it said that both EPA and OSHA played a role in regulating West Fertilizer Co. and its installations (along with several other agencies).

The article does point out that two specific and important safety oversight programs led by those agencies (namely, EPA’s Risk Management Program/OSHA’s Process Safety Management), do not include oversight for the chemical ammonium nitrate. (They do include regulation for anhydrous ammonia, another chemical kept at the West Fertilizer plant).

When we asked Kaufman for his response, he wrote back:

Here’s the Reuters quote:

The two major federal government programs that are supposed to ensure chemical safety in industry–led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)–do not regulate the handling or storage of ammonium nitrate.

This is false, misleading and inaccurate. EPA has authority under the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, etc. to regulate the West Fertilizer Company and its storage of explosive ammonium nitrate. If they had used the authorities they had, and the company, TXDEQ, USDHS etc. had been totally honest with us, the unnecessary deaths could have been prevented.

About Steve Rendall

Senior Media Analyst and Co-producer of CounterSpin Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. His work has received awards from Project Censored, and has won the praise of noted journalists such as Les Payne, Molly Ivins and Garry Wills. He is co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (The New Press, 1995, New York City). Rendall has appeared on dozens of national television and radio shows, including appearances on CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, MTV and Fox Morning News. He was the subject of a profile in the New York Times (5/19/96), and has been quoted on issues of media and politics in publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times. Rendall contributed stories to the International Herald Tribune from France, Spain and North Africa; worked as a freelance writer in San Francisco; and worked as an archivist collecting historical material on the Spanish Civil War and the volunteers who fought in it. Rendall studied philosophy and chemistry at San Francisco State University, the College of Notre Dame and UC Berkeley.