From Texas to China: When Man-Made Problems Make Natural Disasters Worse

The massive fertilizer explosion in Texas and the 6.6-magnitude earthquake in China were both accidents. But smarter preparation and policy may have been able to reduce the death toll

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A 6.6-magnitude earthquake hit the Chinese province of Sichuan, on April 20, 2013.

On any other week, the events would have dominated the news. On April 16, an out-of-control fire at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas, led to a massive explosion that would eventually kill 14 people — many of them firefighters responding to the blaze — and injure more than 200 people. And then early on April 20, just as the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings was captured half a world away, news broke of a 6.6-magnitude earthquake that hit the western Chinese province of Sichuan. The death toll there has risen to nearly 200 people, with more than 11,000 injured. Though neither disaster earned the attention they deserved, the number of dead and injured in both was actually higher than the toll of the Boston bombings — though it should be clear by now that we don’t dole out attention based on the death toll alone.

It’s not hard to see why. Both the Texas fertilizer explosion and the Sichuan quake were accidents, while the Boston bombings were a deliberate attack, done to achieve maximum carnage and attention. But before we shift our focus entirely to the fathomless motivations of the Tsarnaev brothers, we should pause for a moment. The catastrophes in Texas and Sichuan may have been accidents — but that doesn’t mean that human action, or lack of it, could have made both worse than they needed to be.

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That much is already becoming clear as investigators sift through the wreckage of the West, Texas, fertilizer plant. The Associated Press reported that the West Chemical and Fertilizer Co., as the plant was called at the time, hasn’t been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) since 1985 — when it was issued a $30 fine for a “serious violation” for storage of anhydrous ammonia. It’s not uncommon for businesses to go years between inspections — it’s all but inevitable given the OSHA’s scarce resources and the size of its brief — but clearly something went very wrong at this plant. The Dallas Morning News reported that the West fertilizer company had earlier told the Environmental Protection Agency that there was no fire or explosive risks:

The report, reviewed Wednesday night by The Dallas Morning News, stated ‘no’ under fire or explosive risks. The worst possible scenario, the report said, would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one. The second worst possibility projected was a leak from a broken hose used to transfer the product, again causing no injuries. The plan says the facility did not have any other dangerous chemicals on hand. It says that the plan was on file with the local fire department and that the company had implemented proper safety rules.

It’s also notable that the accident occurred in Texas, a state that tends to be less than friendly toward workplace regulations. We don’t know yet whether better safety regulations might have prevented the fertilizer explosion — and the deaths of brave medics and firefighters. Hopefully investigators will be able to answer that question soon. But it’s hard to imagine that there couldn’t have been a way to at least keep the death toll down.

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The good news in China is that the Sichuan quake wasn’t too powerful, and the death toll wasn’t too high — at least by China’s standards. This is the same province that suffered through an 8.0-magnitude quake in 2008 that killed more than 80,000 people. To put that in perspective, the deadliest quake in American history was the 1906 San Francisco temblor, which killed some 3,000 people.

(PHOTOS: Deadly Earthquake Strikes China’s Sichuan Province)

Of course, China’s far greater and denser population means that it will always be at greater risk from any kind of natural disaster. But the sheer number of dead in the 2008 Sichuan quake wasn’t just due to population density or the strength of the temblor — it was due to bad government policy that allowed schools and other buildings to be constructed without earthquake defenses, as the Andrew Revkin pointed out on Dot Earth back in 2008:

Many of the buildings, upon examination of wreckage, proved to be shoddily built, which some might find unsurprising given the pace of growth and lack of significant government oversight in a country of a billion-plus people. Now enraged families of children killed in the earthquake are in the streets protesting, in a rare bit of public defiance of the lockstep order demanded in such a political system.

That public anger led to one of the most serious challenges to the Communist Party’s authority in recent memory. (No less a celebrity activist than the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was radicalized in part by the Chinese government’s cover-up in Sichuan.) This time around Beijing has been much quicker to extend visible aid to Sichuan, with the new Premier Li Keqiang making a trip the affected area the day the quake struck. Hopefully that p.r. will translate into earthquake preparation before the next truly massive temblor hits.

Disasters — natural and unnatural — will happen. But our failures can turn natural disasters into man-made ones — and man-made ones are always worse. We can’t make a perfect world, but we can create a more resilient one.

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