On Thursday afternoon, President Obama spoke at memorial service for twelve firefighters killed during the catastrophic explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas on April 17. Delivered at Baylor University, in Waco, Obama's remarks were plaintive and measured — "We need people who so love their neighbors as themselves that they’re willing to lay down their lives down for them," he said — but otherwise avoided the question of what happens next for the small town of West — the victims, the survivors, and the West Fertilizer Company, which owned the plant.
Most pressingly, it's unclear whether WFC — or companies like it — will face stricter regulations due to the explosion, the origin of which are still unknown. As documented by Scientific American, the facility last underwent a comprehensive safety inspection nearly three decades ago, since which it periodically submitted to partial inspections by an array of different government agencies, paying fines here and there. It's unclear why WFC didn't undergo more inspections; The Huffington Post noted that the company may have been exempt from certain regulations because of its size or the fertilizer industry's low number of injuries.
It's equally uncertain whether politicians will throw their weight behind preventing these sorts of incidents from happening again. Labor reporter Mike Elk pointed out on Twitter that, during his remarks today, Obama omitted any mention of occupational safety regulations — a deviation from his eulogy for the 29 miners killed at an explosion in the Upper Big Branch Mine in April 2010. (In that speech he asked, "How can a nation that relies on its miners not do everything in its power to protect them?") The parallels between the West explosion and Upper Big Branch are debatable — fertilizer plants are not as notoriously unsafe as subterranean coal mines — but last week's explosion introduces new questions, like the acceptable proximity between homes and large quantities of explosive material.
Fox News reported on Wednesday that, less than a week after the explosion, West Fertilizer Company had been hit with at least four lawsuits from insurance companies. One woman, who filed a lawsuit by herself, claimed "$500,000 to $1 million in damages" from the company, claiming the explosion at the plant destroyed her apartment, vehicle, and possessions. None of these actions are particularly surprising, but they do highlight the character of the local reaction.
The Los Angeles Times reported on Wednesday that West citizens have yet to muster indignation against either WFC or the government authorities charged with overseeing them. "The attitudes of local residents partly reflect the character of a small Texas town," the paper noted, quoting a resident who said that people tend not to bother each other. "But the views are also part of a long political tradition in Texas of shunning heavy government regulation despite some of the worst industrial accidents in the nation's history. Among other accidents, a 2005 explosion at a BP refinery killed 15, a 1990 chemical plant incident killed 17 and a 1947 fertilizer explosion killed well over 500 people."
So early on in the aftermath of the explosion, it's difficult to say what's going to happen next — either in government policy or in the legal system. But it's clear that something will happen, whether under updated regulations or the status quo. "Given the scope of the tragedy, experts assume OSHA will rack up every possible violation it can uncover, possibly pushing a tab into the millions of dollars," The Huffington Post noted last week. One of those experts told them: "[Occupational Safety and Health Administration] will bang them up. ... They're going to find every little thing they can ... The ironic thing is you never see fines [that] big unless it's got national attention."