Friday, August 11, 2017

Remember the 1970s Joke About the Three Biggest Lies?

One was racist and another too vulgar to repeat.  The third was "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you."  My friend Dave Hardy has a new book coming out, I'm from the Government and I'm Here to Kill You: The True Human Cost of Official Negligence.  From the website:
Can government employees kill Americans by negligence, incompetence, or even intent, and escape all consequences? The answer is too often yes. A former agency attorney explains how and why, and what we must do to fix a deeply flawed legal system.
The story begins with the Texas City disaster of 1947, where the government (needing fertilizer for the Marshal Plan) decided that a certain high explosive would make good fertilizer, produced it under dangerous conditions, and shipped it to the port of Texas City. Four million pounds of it detonated. 600 Americans died, and the town was devastated.The resulting lawsuit went to the Supreme Court -- which ruled that the government could not be sued, no matter how shocking its negligence had been. The ruling remains law to this day. In case after case, federal agencies have escaped liability for their deadly errors. In fact, the legal regime actually rewards officials for dangerous behavior, and penalizes them if they try to protect your safety!

4 comments:

hga said...

Did he have to lie to make his case? Ammonium nitrate is primarily used as a fertilizer, and I believe that's been the case since the beginning when it was mined in Chile for example. It's more stable/less is lost in transportation and use than urea or liquid ammonia. In conventional explosives it requires fuel, like the fuel oil or diesel in ANFO, or the TNT in Amatol widely used in WWI and WWII, where at the cost of brisance it was used to synergisticly and inexpensively stretch TNT supplies, since it makes up for TNT's oxygen deficiency.

That it can, just by itself, decompose explosively is well known now, heck, the West Fertilizer Company explosion happened only 4 years ago. This can't be good for the book, a substantial fraction of his potential audience knows these sorts of things, especially it's primary use for fertilizer.

Clayton Cramer said...

"High" explosive isn't correct; it has low brissance and makes more sense as an additive to a true high explosive. The 19th century literature extensively references it as both fertilizer AND explosive.

Clayton Cramer said...

Dave tells me "it was a bomb-grade mixture that incorporated wax and petroleum jelly and was used in some aircraft bombs in WWII. It was produced pursuant to a patent for water-resistant explosives. The ordinance plants were set up to make it that way, so they kept on making it, a claim being that since it was water-resistant it'd be less likely to clump up in a humid climate."

hga said...

OK, adding fuels like wax and petroleum jelly would indeed make it into an explosive. Which then places a rather different interpretation on the Texas City and we'd suspect the following Liberty ship explosion in Brest 3 months later. Wikipedia on the disaster says "It was manufactured in a patented process, mixed with clay, petrolatum, rosin and paraffin wax to avoid moisture caking." But not that there's enough fuel added to make it into a real explosive by itself.

And water resistance can be important, Takata Corporation tried to save a bit of money by changing the propellant for their airbags to ammonium nitrate, but when moisture gets in the devices turn into "shrapnel" projecting bombs which are known to have killed 7 people so far. Resulting in the biggest car recall in history, over 42 million, so big is the demand for replacements it's being staged by region, the most humid first.

Thanks for clearing this up!