Process Automation Industry: When an Apology Is Just Not Good Enough

May 10, 2013
We Can't See Most Tragedies Coming, but There Must Be Dozens of People Who Could Have Seen the West Fertilizer Disaster Coming
About the Author
Jim Montague is the Executive Editor at Control, Control Design and Industrial Networking magazines. Jim has spent the last 13 years as an editor and brings a wealth of automation and controls knowledge to the position. For the past eight years, Jim worked at Reed Business Information as News Editor for Control Engineering magazine. Jim has a BA in English from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and lives in Skokie, Illinois.

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When my three daughters were little and running around spilling everything from orange juice to oatmeal, I sometimes caught myself saying things my parents used to say to me. One of them was, "Sorry is not good enough!" I like to think that I rolled out this mind-bender after my girls learned the basics of good manners, but then began to toss out "sorry" as catch-all responses to accidents that clearly resulted from willful carelessness. Maybe I was just jealous that they learned to manipulate their apologies so early, but I also wanted them look where they were going and avoid accidents and injuries in the future.

Except for a few stunted individuals and U.S. presidential administrations, most people find it  fairly easy to say they're sorry. I'm practically a professional at it, but I've learned the real trick is to not overuse it and to be sincere.

So, I was momentarily surprised when I got an April 19 email with a press release from Donald Adair, owner of Adair Grain Co. and West Fertilizer Co., which caught fire and exploded two days earlier in West, Texas, killing 14 people, mostly volunteer firefighters, injuring a couple hundred other folks, and destroying the plant and several blocks of homes.

Read Also: Adair Grain Inc. Issues Statement Regarding West Fertilizer Co. Fire and Explosion

Adair stated, "I want to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt sympathy for those affected and my appreciation for those who responded." He added, "We pledge to do everything we can to understand what happened to ensure nothing like this ever happens again in any community."

Adair's statement was well written and very sincere. Sadly, the downside is it may also be an attempt at damage control by an organization covering its rear in preparation for the coming storm of investigations and litigation.

Sorry to be cynical, but this uneasy feeling was only reinforced when I read news accounts on April 20 that West Fertilizer was storing 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, which was more than 1300 times the amount at which it was supposed to notify the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security—though the agency's  purview is potential bomb-making, not industrial accidents.

We can't see most tragedies, such as the Boston Marathon bombers, 9/11 or all our recent shootings coming, but there must be dozens of people who could have seen the West Fertilizer disaster coming. Unfortunately, while local, state and federal agencies reportedly had contact with the West plant over the years, they were all looking at different requirements from different regulatory jurisdictions—apparently none focused sufficiently on preventing potential explosions near populated areas. Talk about disorganized, if not misplaced, priorities.

It's laughably late to say at this point, but self-reporting, self-regulating and enforcement after-the-fact just aren't getting the job done. Likewise, the old rationalization that these potentially dangerous applications don't pose a threat because they're so remote doesn't wash anymore because many residences are often right nearby, so first responders like West's volunteer firefighters have to handle them.

Most demands for deregulation have to be recognized for what they are. "Freedom from big-government regulation" just sounds better than saying: "I'm just too lazy," or "Don't get in the way of my greed for short-term, short-sighted profits, even if I continue to injure and kill my employees and neighbors." Yes, definitely not the same nice ring to it.

By comparison, "sorry" is good enough for careless little kids, but it's not good enough for adults and process industry professionals, who are running critical applications that demand proactive safety and disaster planning.

C'mon, Texas. If northeastern pantywaists like Massachusetts can quickly hunt down the Boston Marathon bombers in a couple of days, surely you can coordinate agencies and technical jurisdictions, and enforce some effective public safety laws for process operations that have been in plain sight for decades, right?

So, are we sorry enough to change habits, or are we just saying sorry to avoid acting?

About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control.