OpEd

Story published: 05-14-2013 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Accepting safety risks for jobs


By Frances Lamberts

The Mosheim citizens who opposed a nitrogen production plant in their neighborhood have reason for new concern.

The plant will produce enormous amounts of ammonium nitrate, the fertilizer that is also a component for explosives.

An explosion at another such plant in Texas recently killed 14, injured close to 200 and leveled much of the small town.

In Mosheim, the citizens became alarmed when, early in 2011 their planning commission, on first reading, approved a request to rezone 400 acres of agricultural land close to many homes and less than a mile from three schools to heavy-impact industrial use.

According to the Greeneville Sun, in February 2011, the rezoning was done on behalf of “an unknown new industry,” which would make very large capital investments but about the nature of whose “industrial activity” nothing had been disclosed. Company representatives then arranged to meet individually with members of the county commission, which also needed to endorse the rezoning.

Even as “an as-yet-undisclosed industry” would open a large manufacturing facility near a residential community, that body gave its approval at first reading, two weeks later.

A post by Greene County resident Park Overall, a television actress turned activist, that the “company was brought in under dark of night” reflected many residents’ perception of an improperly hasty decision that failed legally mandated sunshine notice process allowing no opportunity for the public to be heard.

A newly-formed subsidiary of Ohio based Austin Powder Company, US Nitrogen LLC broke ground on its “state-of-the-art” manufacturing plant in February 2012.

The State gave taxpayer investment support “of $950,000 in infrastructure upgrades.” The company promises full-time employment for 80.

When operational after August this year, its 420 tons, daily, of manufactured liquid ammonium nitrate will leave the facility in tanker trucks “which keep the product hot after it is manufactured.”

The Texas plant had stocked 270 tons of ammonium nitrate when it blew up. Because of extreme volatility and dangerousness of this material, 25 pounds should have triggered inspection by the Department of Homeland Security. The company had not reported its presence to the federal regulators.

In liquid form, US Nitrogen says the material will not burn unless mixed with other substances, not kept at the Mosheim facility. Fire hazard guides indicate, however, that even then it will “accelerate burning” if involved in a fire, react explosively in any contact with fuels, or “ignite combustibles.”

Oversight at production facilities is shared by several state and federal agencies.

But vast underfunding of these, an anti-regulatory climate nurtured by corporate interests, right-to-work laws and other factors make accidents a now seemingly normal cost of business.

The occupational health agency (OSHA) is so understaffed that it could inspect all U.S. plants only once in 120 years.

Annually, over 4,500 Americans die through workplace accidents.

Though acceptance of deadly dangers may be becoming an expected or imposed return for “jobs,” the Mosheim citizens’ questioning of their government’s action was justified, on these and other grounds.