Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
The Los Angles Times on the ratification of the 19th amendment and the women’s right to vote:
A woman named Shelly Tolhurst offered a sadly prophetic observation at a Sept. 7, 1920, event in Los Angeles celebrating the passage of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. “For a thousand years we have had a certain viewpoint,” Tolhurst said. “This celebration marks the change of that viewpoint, but it will be a long time in coming about. We cannot change the psychology of the world in a day. But that change will be profound and lasting.”
Could Tolhurst and the other women commemorating the momentous occasion have imagined that, in the fantastically distant world of 2020, women would still be fighting for some of the same things — political power, equal treatment under the law and wage parity? Or that not one woman would have yet been elected to the highest political office? Would they be dismayed, as we are, that in 2020 women are subjected to the same sexist insults that were hurled at the suffragists who dared to suggest they should be treated as equals?
Perhaps they could imagine it. After all, it had taken more than 70 years of struggle to reach that moment. The women’s suffrage movement was birthed in 1848 during a meeting of like-minded women and men in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and might have faltered but for the determination of generations of women, including the courageous Black women whose contributions to the cause were too often overlooked by the history books. It wasn’t until Aug. 18, 1920, when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify it, that the 19th Amendment met the constitutional minimum for passage. (California had enfranchised its female citizens nearly a decade earlier; indeed, 21 U.S. states allowed women to vote as early as 1918.)
But it is likely that Tolhurst and her cohort would nevertheless be gratified to see that tremendous progress has been made with the help of women’s voting power, even if true equality is still a long way off. There are laws requiring equal access to education and banning employment discrimination. The Equal Rights Amendment, authored by suffragist leader Alice Paul in 1923, has finally secured the ratification of the crucial 38th state needed for passage (though it is still mired in challenges because of an expired deadline).
A hundred and three years after Montana sent the first woman to Congress — Jeannette Rankin, a Republican and progressive (political parties have changed a bit over the last century as well) — 127 women currently serve in the U.S. House and Senate. Three female jurists sit on U.S. Supreme Court. This week, a woman of color, one who is not just Black but also Asian, is set to become the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee. And it is women who are seen as pivotal swing voters in the presidential election.
The political, social and economic parity the suffragists dreamed about a century ago has been long delayed, but it is coming. Let’s not put it off any longer.
The Baltimore Sun on the U.S. Postal Service:
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans in Congress seem to hold the mistaken belief that everything is just fine and dandy at the U.S. Postal Service. Worries about slow and erratic mail delivery, the dismantling of sorting machines, deliberate sabotage and, most importantly, an inability to deliver ballots for the Nov. 3 election in a timely fashion are just some tall tale cooked up by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — or maybe some left-leaning QAnon equivalent. One can only wonder if Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s announcement Tuesday afternoon that he is “suspending” certain policies that contributed to delays goes far enough or if it will change GOP minds.
“The Democrats’ wild and baseless conspiracy theory,” is how Rep. James Comer, ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, has described it. Senator McConnell said one day before Mr. DeJoy’s surprise announcement that the USPS will “be just fine,” while declining to bring his full chamber back into session from a three-week break to deal with USPS multi-billion-dollar financial woes. For the GOP, the potential theft of an election is just some ho-hum moment.
That’s right, theft. There’s really no better word to describe what continues to look like the Trump administration’s planned effort to suppress the vote by first, sowing doubts and confusion about the reliability of the mail and more specifically of mail-in ballots and second, harming (or starving) the USPS so that ballots will not be delivered in time to be counted. And how could anyone jump to this conclusion? By actually listening to what President Donald Trump has said in recent weeks. He has openly acknowledged that by denying the Postal Service funding, he can discourage mail-in voting, which he has falsely claimed is fraudulent. The president has danced all around the topic, but he has consistently described the post office as a hot mess and mail-in voting (in which he is a participant, incidentally) as inherently corrupt, sometimes drawing a distinction between requested ballots and those that are sent without application.
Enough is enough. On Tuesday, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh joined more than a dozen fellow state attorneys general in filing suit against the U.S. Postal Service to reverse self-inflicted harm including new restrictions on overtime pay for postal workers, altered operations at regional mail distribution centers and removal of mail equipment including mail sorting machines and mailboxes. The lawsuit notes that the Postal Service recently informed states that it will end its long-standing practice of processing ballots as first-class mail no matter what type of postage is used. That’s noteworthy because states and counties commonly use bulk-rate postage for their ballots and that may prevent some from being counted.
Perhaps Mr. DeJoy’s actions will restore quality service, and the lawsuit can be dropped. Perhaps not. Postal workers have been telling all sorts of horror stories, and so are Maryland residents who are no longer receiving their mail in anything close to a timely fashion. In a news conference held Monday in Baltimore with members of Maryland’s congressional delegation, there were complaints about 10-day delays in mail order prescriptions and the loss of a half-dozen mail sorting machines in the Baltimore district. People are suspicious of President Trump’s intentions. Can anyone seriously blame them? That’s not to suggest the Postal Service was perfect before. It’s had its problems in the past, too. But what’s been going on in recent weeks is something completely different, and it sets the stage for a potential disaster if the outcome of the presidential election turns on disputed ballots. What if a sitting president refused to accept the results?
Between Mr. Trump’s misrepresentations and loose talk about fraud (still not proven, still not documented) and the conspicuous recent actions that have harmed mail delivery, Americans are justified in their fears. A recent YouGov poll found about three-quarters of Americans are worried their ballots won’t be counted. This is serious business. Not only should Mr. DeJoy stop messing with the mail, but the Senate ought to follow the lead of the House and approve stimulus funding including $25 billion for the USPS as early as this weekend.
Mail-in voting isn’t some iffy proposal, it’s a practice already in place in a majority of states. Local elections officials understand that the COVID-19 pandemic raises serious concerns about the safety of voting in person. Many states, Maryland included, will not be able to open the customary number of polling places because of health risks. That puts a greater onus on the federal government to make sure that it can hold up its end of the guarantee for fair elections inherent to representative democracy and deliver mail-in ballots reliably and on-time. That is nothing short of a sacred duty. It’s time for the White House and Congress to stop messing around and fix the mail.
The Wall Street Journal on Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden’s economic plan:
The Democratic convention case against President Trump boils down to Covid and character, and the polls suggest it’s working. But the bigger issue next year will be reviving the economy from the shutdown recession, and on that score the Democrats are mostly quiet. Perhaps that’s because Joe Biden is promising to repeat the same policy mix that produced the slowest recovery in modern times during the Obama years. The record is worth examining.
Mr. Biden’s cheerleaders declare the Obama Administration a smashing economic success. They say he inherited the deepest recession since the Great Depression, and handed President Trump the longest expansion on record. Mr. Obama did get some things right. He tolerated the shale energy revolution that emerged on his watch, albeit on private land. Only late in his term did he try to strangle it with pipeline bans and regulation. Despite conflicting instincts on trade policy, he also pushed for progress on major multilateral trade deals with Europe and around the Pacific.
But the overall economic numbers tell a negative story. Annual economic growth, adjusted for inflation, averaged 2.3% after the recession ended in June 2009 across Mr. Obama’s two terms. Despite the length of the post-2009 expansion, it was shallow.
Sluggish growth went hand-in-hand with the worst labor recovery in generations. The unemployment rate peaked at 10% in October 2009 and didn’t reach the pre-recession level of 4.4% until March 2017. That painfully slow healing overstates the improvement since so many Americans dropped out of the workforce.
The labor participation rate—roughly, the percentage of working-age adults working or actively seeking work—fell to 62.8% when President Obama left office in January 2017 from a pre-recession 66.2% in January 2008 at the onset of the recession. The participation rate for men of prime working age (25-54) never rose much above 88% throughout Mr. Obama’s tenure, by far its lowest rate since records began in 1948.
Mr. Obama’s contribution was to make the Main Street recovery more difficult with mistakes the Biden Democrats seem set on repeating. Chief among these was the $800 billion “stimulus” spending bill in 2009 that was supposed to galvanize a rapid recovery. But the shovel-ready projects weren’t ready. Most of the money was spent on income and social-worker transfer payments that did nothing to change incentives to work and invest.
The payments also penalized work in the name of supporting laid-off workers. One signature policy was a significant extension of unemployment benefits, to 99 weeks, that paid people not to work long after the recession ended. Sound familiar? Measures ranging from expanded eligibility for food stamps to means-tested subsidies for mortgage borrowing punished people who worked more.
Casey Mulligan of the University of Chicago added up the various benefits and estimated the marginal tax rate created by the phase-out of benefits as workers earned more rose to 48% from 40% before the recession. Mr. Mulligan argues these labor-market distortions bear most of the responsibility for the depth and length of what he calls the “redistribution recession.”
Another lesson is how quickly the Obama Democrats pivoted from recovery to social revolution, and how destructive that pivot was. With the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi reorganized one-sixth of the economy. The law’s combination of tax hikes, regulatory diktats and the uncertainty attendant on “passing the law to learn what’s in it” hobbled the recovery.
Now Mr. Biden is promising to repeat this, but on a grander scale in health care and his version of a Green New Deal. The economic manifesto his policy team co-authored with staffers from the Bernie Sanders campaign promises to install 500 million solar panels in five years, eliminate carbon emissions from power plants, and replace every school bus with a green model. The document doesn’t explicitly ban fossil-fuel production but it promises new rules that will raise costs and curtail it.
Note that one political consequence of these policy failures was to lean more heavily on monetary policy to salvage a recovery from Mr. Obama’s bad instincts, and the Federal Reserve created distortions to do so.
By refusing to normalize monetary policy after the financial panic ended, the Ben Bernanke-Janet Yellen Fed inflated asset bubbles on stock exchanges, in corporate debt markets, urban property markets, and other parts of the world. These booms mainly benefited asset owners at the expense of wage earners and entrepreneurs. The result was a damaging form of inequality, new in America, that rewarded asset ownership or political connections instead of innovation and hard work.
Even with the Fed’s exertions, the economy slowed in 2015 and nearly fell into recession. Growth in the last six quarters of the Obama Presidency averaged less than 1.9%. This helped Donald Trump make the case that the Obama expansion had left behind working people.
The Biden economic plan is best understood as Obamanomics pulled left by Bernie Sanders. He’d raise taxes by $3 trillion by his count—about $4 trillion by independent calculations. His spending plans run to at least $7.4 trillion, conservatively estimated. His labor proposals are the most pro-union since the 1935 Wagner Act. Regulations on health care, energy, transportation, technology and finance will multiply, often with a priority of reducing racial inequities rather than increasing opportunity.
The U.S. economy will have a growth spurt in 2021 as the pandemic ends no matter who wins the election. But over time these destructive policies will inevitably lead to slower growth. The Fed will be called to do even more, perhaps including bond purchases of private companies and modern monetary theory’s debt monetization. Asset holders will benefit more than wage earners.
This may not matter in the election, since Democrats and Donald Trump both want to make this a referendum on Donald Trump. But voters should be under no illusions about what they’re buying in the Biden agenda, and under no fog of amnesia concerning what happened the last time.
The New York Times on COVID-19 testing:
Six months into the global coronavirus pandemic, Americans trying to navigate daily life remain trapped between a clear ideal — the country needs to test as many people as possible for the virus, as regularly as possible, for as long as possible — and the reality that there are nowhere near enough tests in the United States to do that.
Widespread testing is the key to opening schools and businesses safely. It’s the only way to get a handle on where the coronavirus is spreading, whether efforts to control it are working and what precautions are needed in any given community at any given moment. But funding shortfalls and bottlenecks mean that nearly every entity in the country is falling far short of that goal.
By most estimates, the United States is conducting fewer than five million tests per week on average, a far cry from the 30 million per week that experts were hoping to achieve by this fall. In some communities it remains difficult to find a test at all. In others, results take a week or longer to come back, making them all but useless.
These shortcomings have left institutions and individuals with a string of intractable questions: When should people without symptoms get tested? Who should be granted priority when supplies are limited? Which kinds of coronavirus tests should be used under which circumstances?
There does not seem to be any consensus on these questions. Some schools are requiring entry testing for returning faculty and students, even in places where tests are difficult to come by. Others are not, even where transmission rates are high. The N.B.A. is testing everyone; the meatpacking industry is not. And while the Trump administration is reportedly working to supply the nation’s nursing homes with rapid point-of-care tests — as is urgently needed — it has neglected to do the same for other congregant living facilities, like prisons, where outbreaks have devastated populations.
Much of this discord could have been prevented if America had developed a national testing strategy early in the pandemic — with local, state and federal officials coordinating to clear supply chain bottlenecks and public and private entities working together to develop rapid point-of-care tests.
There is no shortage of road maps for correcting course. The administration could dust off the national testing plan its own advisers created. Or it could look to the roster of organizations — including the Rockefeller Foundation — that have developed similar proposals. But even at this stage in the pandemic, with many thousands of lives and livelihoods lost, federal leaders are acting too slowly.
Amid this void in leadership — and the abundant confusion over testing across America at the moment — here’s what state and local leaders, parents, business owners and individuals should keep in mind.
What should the federal government be doing? A joint report from Duke University and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health calls for a $75 billion investment in a national testing strategy. That’s a lot of money, but it’s a small price to pay for getting the U.S. coronavirus epidemic under control.
Even if federal leaders don’t invest that much, they at least ought to consider giving companies a stronger incentive to test people quickly. As Bill Gates and others have suggested, companies should be reimbursed by insurers, or paid by the federal government, based on how quickly they can deliver test results: Mr. Gates suggests paying extra for results that arrive in 24 hours, less for those that take 48 hours, and nothing for those that take longer (because by then, those results are useless).
What can state and local governments do in the meantime? As frustrating as it sounds, some testing companies have been reluctant to increase production of rapid point-of-care tests because they haven’t been assured that those additional tests will be purchased. State leaders can allay some of that hesitancy if they band together to make purchase guarantees with the companies — as some have already begun to do.
State and local leaders also should consider broader surveillance strategies for detecting coronavirus outbreaks, such as waste water testing. And they should make any data they have on case counts, positivity rates and so on as publicly available and usable as possible.
What about individual institutions? Until testing capacity is vastly expanded, it will be nearly impossible to devise a meaningful testing strategy for schools, offices and other institutions — not only because results need to come in quickly to be actionable, but also because any successful strategy will require repeated testing over many months.
One thing individual entities should consider given these shortages is a targeted surveillance strategy, where a proportion of asymptomatic people (students, staff members, residents) are systematically tested. That would require stocking up on rapid point-of-care tests (it’s likely you’d be getting what are known as antigen tests) and training people to administer them — hurdles, to be sure. But doing so would help officials detect potential outbreaks.
Should schools require testing? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently advised that universities don’t need to consider entry testing — that is, testing staff and students before they’re allowed on campus. The C.D.C.’s argument is that such testing hasn’t been specifically studied for this coronavirus. “That’s akin to observing that seatbelts save lives in Cleveland but refusing to recommend them in Cincinnati because that’s a different city,” says Carl T. Bergstrom, a biology professor at the University of Washington. “It makes much more sense to say, ‘Entry testing is a best practice. We understand it’s not feasible in a lot of places, but we still think everyone should try.’”
Schools should be mindful of local testing availability when they set their testing requirements, and should consider implementing their own targeted surveillance programs when possible — perhaps deciding grade by grade, or classroom by classroom, to determine what level of reopening is safe. Schools in communities where the virus is spreading unchecked should not open.
Given the shortages and delays, when should people seek testing? Ideally, every person in America would get tested every few days — because we know that at least one-third of people who are infected and contagious have no symptoms.
But there is simply not enough capacity to do that many tests. Because results that take more than two days to arrive are effectively useless, it only makes sense to get tested in certain circumstances. If you think you were exposed to the coronavirus, and you can’t easily quarantine until the threat of contagion passes, you’ll want to get what’s known as a PCR test — that’s the most common type of test right now, available at most testing sites — to know whether you have an active infection and pose a risk to others. Ideally you would get tested twice — once soon after exposure, and again about a week later. (It often takes several days to develop an active infection.)
Getting tested when you have no symptoms or clear exposure is, at this point, of limited value because it can’t be done routinely. But it might make sense to get screened if you are planning to visit elderly or immunocompromised friends or loved ones. In this scenario, ideally you’d get two PCR tests, a week or so apart, and quarantine while you wait for your results.
Unfortunately, both of these scenarios assume you live in an area without long testing delays — which is a big assumption at the moment. Yes, this is extremely frustrating.
What’s the point of investing in testing if a vaccine is on its way? A vaccine will not necessarily eliminate the need for rigorous testing. Not only will it take time to deploy, but if a vaccine is less than 100 percent effective, testing will still be needed to monitor the spread of the virus in communities.
In other words, the coronavirus is not going away anytime soon. If leaders — at any level — want to keep schools open, restart the economy and eventually return to normal life, they’ll have to start resolving these issues.
The Guardian on the explosion in Beirut and the city’s leadership:
Days after an enormous explosion tore through the city of Beirut, leaving at least 170 people dead and thousands injured, Lebanon’s cabinet last week resigned. It might have been an opportunity to end a sad chapter of the country’s history. Protesters have been on the streets since last October, angry at official corruption, mismanagement and spiralling inflation. With the politicians resigning en masse, this was surely a turning point. Unfortunately there appear to be many more sad chapters for this tortured nation to endure.
Lebanon’s tragedy today is that it is caught between Iran and the US, a standoff which saw the UAE and Israel – former foes – draw closer last week. Iran backs Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist political party and a US-designated terror group, which has become a pillar of the Lebanese state by weaving a web of multi-sectarian alliances.
The “Party of God” has been part of Lebanese coalition governments for more than a decade. It is also Israel’s most potent adversary. Previously Hezbollah lurked in the background, allowing rivals to run the government but able to intervene at crucial moments. When demonstrations brought a new government in January, Hezbollah was firmly in charge. This meant it could be blamed for the state’s dysfunction, which it can do very little to fix. With the suspicions that it stored weapons near the site of the explosion, the Tehran-backed group will struggle to retain its dominance.
Lebanon’s confessional-based political system lies at the heart of its dysfunctional governance. Based on a French colonial-era power-sharing agreement and reinforced by the 1991 Taif agreement which ended the country’s 15-year civil war, seats in parliament are shared out proportionally among the country’s 18 religious groups. Public sector jobs are divided up among sects. This system ought to have disappeared within the first parliament after the civil war ended.
But Lebanon’s political parties had no interest in dismantling the system of patronage. They use ministries to dole out jobs to their followers. Lebanon’s political system relies on foreign powers, which back local proxies. Syria ran the country, with tacit US approval, until its 2005 withdrawal – which was sparked by assassination of then-prime minister Rafik Hariri. This week a UN-backed court in the Hague is to deliver its verdict on four men, linked to Hezbollah, tried for his murder.
Hariri’s death should have been the spark for real change: national reconciliation between communal groups and, as the Taif accords envisaged, the establishment of a parliamentary body to end Lebanon’s “confessional” democracy. There needs to be a process of reform. But Beirut is hunkering down, enacting a law that gives the army sweeping powers while demonstrations rage.
The Lebanese, who host 1.5 million Syrian refugees, ought to decide their government. They are rightly angry: rolling blackouts, food shortages and soaring prices mar their daily lives. Aid to deal with Covid-19 is needed. More US sanctions will be self-defeating. New elections might help. But voting carried out using the current system favours incumbents.
One demand from the protesters is, before any new election, for the electoral law to be changed to a non-sectarian basis. That needs the current caretaker government to cede power to a more representative one. Something must give, and it would be better for the Arab street to be heard. As we saw in neighbouring Syria, a civil non-sectarian movement can morph into deadly sectarian strife. That is a chapter of Lebanese history nobody wants to write.
The Washington Post on QAnon:
Twitter announced last month that it had removed thousands of accounts spreading messages about QAnon. Days later, TikTok blocked hashtags that corresponded to QAnon videos. And early this month, Facebook removed a QAnon group with 200,000 members. All of which led many Americans to ask the question: What on earth is QAnon?
Unfortunately, this question isn’t so easy to answer. QAnon is a conspiracy theory involving a “deep state” of child molesters (and child-eaters) who worship the devil and run this country’s most powerful institutions. It originates with an anonymous persona called Q who claims to possess a top-level security clearance used to access government secrets about a vast left-wing plot against President Trump. Yet from there, the theory has sprawled across the Internet, offering various versions of differing degrees of bizarreness luring the susceptible reader down a rabbit hole — and tempting the outside observer to ignore the wackiness altogether. Except ignoring QAnon isn’t an option.
Not only has QAnon led to intense online harassment of innocent parties, and not only has it led to physical violence, but Americans also can’t ignore QAnon because adherents to some form of the theory may soon represent them in Congress. More than 60 candidates this fall have expressed their sympathies with the cause. Fourteen have clinched a place on the ballot. Mr. Trump himself has been known to retweet QAnon-adjacent content, and on Friday, when he was asked about the phenomenon, he sidestepped the inquiry. This sent believers into paroxysms.
That QAnon is tiptoeing ever closer to the political mainstream is only one of many challenges for social media sites. These sites can’t ignore QAnon, but neither can they simply ban it — not really. Platforms tend to prefer to focus on behavior rather than content, so they have ready-made recourse in their terms of service when they want to act against manipulation of algorithms or tactics such as “swarming” (systematically attacking targets of the conspiracy theory for, say, being baby-eaters). When platforms do focus on content, they are far more likely to act when there is a risk of real-world harm. QAnon has caused real-world harm, surely. But not every post related to the theory runs that risk, and swinging the moderator’s mallet could needlessly squelch speech — perhaps fueling the same accusations of a scheming liberal conglomerate that are the movement’s raison d’etre. And even if platforms did decide QAnon as a whole was too much of a menace to countenance, they’d run into trouble determining which posts qualified.
QAnon is poised to act as a test case for the convoluted rules and enforcement apparatuses social media sites have developed over their years-long shift toward taking responsibility. These technology companies will need to navigate the labyrinths they themselves have constructed. They should also explain to the rest of us the routes they are taking. All the while, they’ll confront a quandary entirely out of their power to resolve: The president isn’t an accidental beneficiary of these conspiracy-mongers. He is egging them on.
The Houston Chronicle on the Beirut explosion in comparison to an industrial Texas fire in 1947:
The chemical explosions halfway across the world last week in Beirut, killing 200 people, hit too close to home for many of us Texans.
We’ve been there. In 1947, the nation’s worst industrial accident to date exploded just 45 minutes southeast of downtown Houston in Texas City, killing nearly 600 and injuring thousands. In 2013, a small fertilizer plant exploded in a tiny town called West, killing 15 people.
Those Texas disasters were triggered by the same chemical blamed in Beirut: ammonium nitrate, a common and mostly unregulated fertilizer stored as pellets that is often used as an explosive in mining and construction and is a favorite ingredient for amateur bomb makers such as the Oklahoma City terrorist Timothy McVeigh.
We Texans who remember the Arkema explosion of organic peroxides after Hurricane Harvey and at least six other chemical explosions, fires and major leaks since then may have murmured the same disillusioned chorus as we watched Beirut burn and cry: There but for the grace of God goes Texas because those appointed to keep us safe sure as hell aren’t doing their jobs.
A tragedy such as the one we saw in Beirut should serve as a wake-up call to any American who lives as we in Houston do: cheek-by-jowl with massive amounts of dangerous chemicals, often sloppily stored.
Yet, if history is any guide, it won’t.
The best way to understand why is to go back seven years and recall the high hopes of the federal government’s massive response to the disaster in West, and then examine how they came crashing down under the weight of bureaucracy and industry pressure.
Maybe the only way to persuade state and federal regulators to protect us from dangerous chemicals is to never let them forget how miserably they’ve failed to do so.
FELT LIKE A QUAKE
Folks in West were just settling in for an ordinary Wednesday evening on April 17, 2013, when a fire broke out in a warehouse at West Fertilizer Company, a small family owned business that had been equipping farmers for more than 50 years.
At the fire station, the chief flicked on the town’s warning sirens as volunteer firefighters raced to the scene from all directions. Four out-of-town firefighters, relaxing after a day of training that had brought them to West, hurried to help. An off-duty captain in the Dallas Fire Department who lived in West came, too.
Within minutes, the first responders knew something was unusual. The fire was so hot even firefighters not yet close to the flames felt as if they were being baked. Large tanks of anhydrous ammonia — a fertilizer stored under pressure as a liquid that, if lit on fire, can create huge plumes of poisonous gas — were on the property. Responders immediately began ordering the evacuation of a nearby nursing home, apartment complex and scores of neighboring homes.
The tanks never did leak, but the firefighters’ quick decision to evacuate the area ended up saving perhaps hundreds of lives. All the while as the emergency vehicles arrived and calls for backup went out, the fire had broiled huge quantities of the nearly 540,000 pounds of another kind of ammonia-based fertilizer that firefighters hadn’t realized was so dangerous: ammonium nitrate.
Thirteen minutes after the first firefighters arrived, and as veterans among them were urging a retreat to let the fire burn out, the ammonium nitrate exploded. The blast tore through a three-foot concrete foundation, created a crater eight feet deep and 75 feet wide, and destroyed the nursing home, the apartment complex and scores of homes.
People living 50 miles away reported what felt like an earthquake. Among the 15 dead were 12 first responders. More than 300 were injured. Initial property damage in the town of fewer than 3,000 residents was pegged at more than $100 million.
SHOCK, GRIEF, ANGER
The fallout from the blast took on a familiar pattern. Shock, then grief, then rage as fingers of blame were pointed.
Then-Gov. Rick Perry right away began pushing back at calls for tougher rules, saying they wouldn’t have prevented the explosion. The month following the burials in West, a spokesman said it was too soon to talk about any strengthening of Texas’ infamously weak safety regulations.
It took two years for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to publish its conclusions: poor storage of the ammonium nitrate, inadequate training for first responders and the storage facilities’ proximity to homes and the nursing home all contributed to the disaster.
In Washington, hope for real action was stirring. On Aug. 1, President Barack Obama issued an executive order requiring top officials at half a dozen federal agencies — led by EPA, Homeland Security and the Department of Labor — to come together to bolster federal safety standards for dangerous chemicals, including ammonium nitrate.
What followed was a herculean effort across the federal government to work with industry, lawmakers and regulators to update safety standards, which had been unchanged since 1992 — and in some cases, the early 1970s when agencies like the EPA and Labor Department’s OSHA were created.
Despite the countless hours, meetings and soaring expectations, almost nothing changed. Seven years after West, we’re left with the scant rules for storage and handling of ammonium nitrate that remain rooted in standards, approved by industry, set in 1972. Other chemical safety standards remain unchanged and outdated as well.
What went wrong? We spoke last week with someone who worked closely with the task force created after Obama’s executive order, a former administrator at OSHA, the lead safety agency within the Department of Labor.
For one thing, the process moves like molasses, he said, often taking 10 to 20 years to issue a new standard. Every step of the way, industry pushes against new rules that could increase their costs or limit their choices.
The skilled lobbyists know if they can just stall the process long enough, they can often wait out an administration until a new president comes in with new priorities.
Soon after Obama created it, the task force members began debating two options: whether to update 1972-era rules to tighten lax standards for chemicals including ammonium nitrate or, a much heavier lift: to add ammonium nitrate to the list of compounds covered by a much tougher set of 1992 standards.
As the 2016 election approached, OSHA decided to keep working on the tougher reforms, hoping the next president would continue that work. “We had hoped for a Clinton presidency,” the former official said, who asked not to be named due to his current role as a senior House committee staff member.
EPA, on the other hand, rushed to issue a modest set of last-minute reforms that did not address ammonium nitrate, but did require chemical facilities to share inventories of dangerous compounds on site and to evaluate whether there are safer alternatives to using the most dangerous chemicals. The agency wagered that a small win was better than none at all, and saved the heavier lift on adding ammonium nitrate to the 1992 standards for the new administration.
They lost the bet. When Donald Trump took office in January 2017, OSHA’s and EPA’s work on the tougher standards stopped. Within months, new leaders at EPA announced it would rescind the new rules, modest as they were, before they could take effect.
In the Chemical Safety Board’s 2016 final report on West, it made 19 recommendations. Most have yet to be implemented, though some small changes have occurred, including increased frequency of OSHA inspections and new guidance on emergency planning.
Otherwise, America now stands at precisely the same place it was in 2013 before those firefighters rushed to their deaths in West. None of the incidents since — from the Arkema explosions to the March 2019 fire that burned for three days at the Intercontinental Terminal Co. — have prompted meaningful reforms to state or federal safety regulations.
As NPR correspondent Eric Westervelt reported in detail this week, we’re a country left exposed to enormous risks from the thousands of sites across our land that house vast stores of ammonium nitrate and other deadly compounds. An eight-part series by the Chronicle’s investigative staff in 2016 had previously exposed just how vulnerable this region is to devastating industrial accidents, and detailed how industry had thwarted Obama’s reform efforts.
After the Beirut blast, Chemical Safety Board Managing Director Katherine Lemos called on America to not let such a thing happen again here. She told Westervelt last week that accidents like the ones in Beirut and West can be avoided — if government sets and enforces tougher safety standards.
“We are about preventing catastrophic explosion. This is preventable,” Lemos said. “We really need to push on it. I think it’s critical. That’s our job.”
And it’s our job, Texans, as voters, to hold government representatives to that job.
If we don’t, we know what will happen. We’ve seen it before. And we saw it in Beirut last week.
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