We all know that using fertilizer can help create a full, healthy lawn, but some members of Congress have found that backing the fertilizer industry also leads to a full, healthy campaign bank account.
The recent fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, which killed at least 14 people and injured over 160, has refocused attention on which safety regulations and enforcement procedures could have prevented the blast. The factory in West was chronically under-regulated and inspected, without a visit from a watchdog since 2007 and no inspection by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) since 1985.
It’s no wonder that despite having 270 tons of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate—1,350 times the amount that triggers oversight—the plant had managed to avoid reporting this fact to the Department of Homeland Security and lacked basic preventive measures like fire sprinklers. Already only able to conduct 40,000 workplace inspections a year in a country with seven million worksites, OSHA will see its budget cut by an additional 8.2 percent this year on account of the sequester.
While most Americans would probably hope that their elected representatives are hard at work making sure shorthanded inspectors will be fully funded to prevent future disasters, 13 members of Congress bankrolled by the chemical manufacturers are pushing legislation to make these plants even less regulated and more dangerous, prompting questions of whose interests they really serve.
Following the explosion, Mother Jones reported that Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) was joined earlier this year by 11 other House members on a bill to forbid the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating chemical plants under the Clean Air Act. Officially known as the General Duty Clarification Act, the bill has been the “Koch brothers bill” by opponents on account of Koch Industries’ large holdings in fertilizer manufacturing and its close ties to Pompeo.
The bill's sponsors have received big bucks from the chemical industry:
- Pompeo could probably be given the suffix of (R-Koch). He is the top recipient of campaign cash from the company’s PAC and executives ($192,000 since his 2009 run for Congress), his chief of staff is a former Koch employee, and he wrote an op-ed last year defending the brothers from being “vilified” by the President.
- Pompeo’s recent first quarter campaign finance filings show that nine out of the 21 contributions he received came from the PACs and lobbyists of firms that represent Koch Industries or trade groups that have signed on in favor of the anti-regulation bill, such as the American Chemistry Council and U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
- The 12 House sponsors of the “Koch brothers bill” and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who introduced a similar bill in 2012, have collectively taken over $670,000 from the chemical manufacturing industry over their careers.
* Values produced by Public Campaign analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Because of Koch Industries’ involvement in multiple industries, contributions from its PAC and employees are not classified as chemical industry contributions by CRP.
Overall, the industry spent $8.7 million on donations to congressional candidates in the 2012 election. Since 2011, the industry has spent $85.1 million on lobbying.
While the chemical industry overall lacks the financial firepower to match the political giving of some larger industries, in this case its investment appears well-spent. Allowing the EPA to ensure that basic safety measures are in place at plants producing dangerous chemicals might add to the chemical industry’s costs, but it could save lives by avoiding future tragedies.
The disaster in West goes to show that the systemic corruption of Congress and the undue influence of special interests is not an abstract problem only found in obscure tax loopholes. The power of money in politics has real consequences for Americans and has a cost that can be measured in lives lost and homes destroyed in addition to dollars and cents.