Last weekend, The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media publication that covers public policy, politics, environmental issues and other statewide matters, hosted its annual Texas Tribune Festival. As always, the festival did an amazing job of bringing folks together from around the state to discuss the most important policy issues of the year. I was lucky enough to participate on a panel titled “After West” as part of the environmental track. The panel was dedicated to lessons learned after this year’s terrible tragedy in West, Texas that took the lives of 15 people and devastated a small town.
Other participants on the panel included: Chris Connealy, Texas State Fire Marshall; Tim Herrman, State Chemist of Texas Tommy Muska, Mayor of West; Kyle Kacal, State Representative; and Alana Rocha, reporter, The Texas Tribune (panel moderator)
Some of the information presented during the panel was encouraging, such as hearing that the Fire Marshall has reached out to and visited fertilizer facilities similar to the one in West. In addition, Mayor Muska highlighted the tremendous support folks in West have received and the outpouring of concern from citizens across the nation.
But at the end of the day, I was left wondering if anything had really changed.
For example, state law still prohibits Texas counties from adopting a fire code. Why? What possible reason could suffice for prohibiting a fire code? It’s been suggested that the policy attracts business to Texas, or in some way reduces costs to operate in the state. But what have we truly saved by skirting simple common sense measures, such as keeping explosive material separated from other, ignitable supplies, or not installing a sprinkler system?
As well, does it seem appropriate that most of the buildings where we live and work in require an annual fire safety inspection, but places like the West fertilizer facility can deny the Fire Marshall access to the property?
My hope is that the lessons of West will not be forgotten and that our community leaders understand the importance of common sense practices that could prevent such future tragedies. Texas has the largest number of worker fatalities of any state in the nation – over 400 preventable deaths every year. It’s time to do better.
Many thanks to The Texas Tribune for remembering the West tragedy at the festival and a special shout out to Alana Rocha for her terrific moderation of the panel.