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West is a small town of around 2800 people, with nearly 20% minority population. Much of the community lives on average to low incomes. The plant was located directly opposite a middle school and nursing home. As the Healthy Schools Network commented ‘it’s hard to believe that state officials never thought to keep children and chemicals FAR away from each other’.

*Image by Chuck Johnson

Last week a fertiliser plant in the small town of West, Texas, USA exploded killing 15 people and leaving many injured. The cause of the Texas blast has been attributed to a fire which broke out and later spread to stored ammonium nitrate. The plant was responsible for processing anhydrous ammonia and stored large quantities of toxic, highly combustible material. The plant had been previously investigated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for various ammonia odours and was found to be operating without a license.

West is a small town of around 2800 people, with nearly 20% minority population. Much of the community lives on average to low incomes. The plant was located directly opposite a middle school and nursing home. As the Healthy Schools Network commented ‘it’s hard to believe that state officials never thought to keep children and chemicals FAR away from each other’.

This catastrophe raises yet again the much agitated questions of who, for economic and social reasons, live in the vicinity of environmentally dangerous sites – that is, which sections of the population bear disproportionate and unjust environmental risks in industrialised societies. The EDO has written on this topic of environmental justice at length.

In the case of the town of West, there may well have been planning shortcomings over a long period of time, allowing the town to expand around the fertilizer plant. Regardless of how it came about, the end point is the same: people with low incomes have been shouldering a greater burden of environmental harm and risk than others. Because of their relative socio-economic disadvantage, these communities have less power to remove themselves from the situation (move house), and less ability to participate in political and legal processes to improve their circumstances (they can’t afford to sue anyone). They are, in essence, trapped.

Greenpeace in the US has stated that:

One in three Americans is at risk of a poison gas disaster by living near one of hundreds of chemical facilities that store and use highly toxic chemicals. A chemical disaster at just one of these facilities could kill or injure thousands of people with acute poisoning. Of the 12,361 chemical facilities that report their chemical disaster scenarios to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Greenpeace has identified 483 chemical facilities across the U.S. that each put 100,000 people or more at risk. Of those, 92 put one million or more people at risk up to 25 miles downwind from a plant.

Not all environmental justice problems comprise potentially spectacular risks such as in the Texas fertilizer plant case. Other environmental timebombs are more metaphorical, although no less compelling. Take asbestos as a case in point. The same might be said for mines, which is particularly relevant in Australia.  

The Texas tragedy supports the case for tougher environmental regulation and community involvement control over industries that impact them – not less.

*thanks to our wonderful volunteer Laura for her contribution to this piece in the form of the original draft and underlying research.