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Despite Crises from Salmonella Outbreak to West Blast, Texas Governor Rick Perry's Pushed Freer Rein for Business

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Some people saw it as a critical health and safety issue: Up to 20,000 farm workers per year were getting poisoned by agricultural pesticides, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and new regulations were needed to protect them.

But there was another side to the argument, and Rick Perry took it.

"American business in general, and American agriculture specifically, have had enough of bureaucracy at both the federal and state levels, but especially bureaucracy out of Washington," Perry said at a congressional hearing. "The men and women who feed and clothe this nation are suffocating under the weight of mounting federal regulations."

That was back in 1993, when Perry was Texas' agriculture commissioner. Now Texas' longest-serving governor, Perry has remained steadfast in his opposition to government regulations. Soon after a fertilizer plant explosion in West killed 15 people, Perry said spending more tax dollars on inspections would not have prevented the tragedy.

"All the regulation and enforcement possible simply cannot anticipate, nor prevent, every tragedy such as the explosion in West," Perry spokesman Josh Havens said.

But the governor's critics see the deadly explosion as graphic proof of the consequences of rolling back government regulations and weakening the deterrent effect of lawsuits by injured citizens.

"In a regulatory environment in which companies have virtually unchecked freedom but not enough responsibility and accountability, the inevitable result is a series of crises like the West explosion," said Thomas McGarity, a University of Texas law professor who once advised Democrat Jim Hightower, a former state agriculture commissioner.

Tons of unregulated ammonium nitrate blew apart the West Fertilizer Co. and much of the town in April. The blast injured hundreds and caused millions of dollars in damage. It also laid bare holes in the state's regulatory oversight system.

Texas does not require such facilities to carry liability insurance. It has no statewide fire code. No single agency is charged with ensuring plant safety. There is no minimum training requirement for the volunteer firefighters who serve much of Texas.

In addition, West Fertilizer and similar facilities all over Texas are part of an agricultural system that is marked by gaps in regulation, from food safety to worker protection.  
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