The West, Texas Tragedy Could And Should Have Been Prevented

I recently spoke at "A Conversation About the Environment," hosted by the Texas Tribune, with fellow speakers Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Texas’ environmental protection agency; Laura Huffman, State Director of the Nature Conservancy of Texas; and Kate Galbraith, Texas Tribune’s leading energy reporter.  At the event, Kate kicked off the discussion with a quote from my colleague Elena Craft’s blog post regarding the West, Texas fertilizer explosion.  I made note of an important fact from Elena’s post that Texas leads the nation in total fatal industrial accidents, with over 400 deaths in 2011.  For comparison, California came in second (and has a population larger than Texas), with 260 total deaths.

Soon after, PolitiFact Texas reached out to me to inspect my claim.  While my statement that Texas leads the nation in industrial accidents is accurate, they questioned why I did not qualify the statistics of deaths caused by industrial accidents on a per-worker basis. One reason that I chose not to use a per-worker comparison is that even though the rates compare per 100,000 people, there can be a significant difference in variability in the rates between high population states like Texas and low population states like New Hampshire or West Virginia. That is because there is an order of magnitude difference in the workforce population between Texas and these smaller population states. One would need to characterize that variability over multiple years to determine whether variability had a significant impact on the rate. The point of my comment during the Texas Tribune event was to highlight the fact that far too many workers die unnecessarily in Texas every year in workplace accidents that can and should be prevented.

Furthermore, people are not statistics. Fifteen people lost their lives in the West tragedy, many of them first responders who entered the facility without having knowledge of the true risks or that they would lose their lives that day. Joseph Stalin infamously remarked that, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” The individuals that lost their lives in the West explosion deserve better than to be called a statistic.  People don't die or hold funerals on a per-worker basis.

The tragedy in West, Texas could and should have been prevented. Texas public officials have cut funding to key agencies responsible for ensuring strong public health and safety protections. And right now, several bills are working their way through the legislature to further weaken public health protections, even as tragedies like the explosion in West continue to occur. This is the reason that our team at Environmental Defense Fund is committed to advocating for strict oversight of environmental compliance in Texas.

Texas can and should be a safer place to work. One preventable death is one too many.

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