Friday, April 19, 2013

Fixing Bad Adjacencies: The New Stimulus?

Many folks were undoubtedly shocked when they learned that the Texas fertilizer plant fire and explosion was close to a rest home and a middle school.  In this map, the middle school is immediately southwest of the plant and the rest home, with the grey roofs, is only a short distance to the west.

Many likely assumed that the flawed adjacency was the result of poor planning.  After all, whether the planning system is use-based or form-based, potentially hazardous industrial uses are always located safely away from the general population.

And perhaps a strong-minded planner could have made a difference in the Texas situation.  But I suspect that he would have been more likely to get himself fired for asking hard questions.

Because I believe that adjacency problems like that in West are the result of a long evolution and the avoidance of hard questions.  I’ll speculate that when the plant in West was originally established, the worst case scenario was probably far less severe.  Over time, the plant grew and the nature of the chemical processes changed, creating a situation that should have become more worrisome.

But people liked their short commutes.  And the town needed to grow, so began looking enviously at the land around the plant.

Therefore, plant managers and regulators, who should have known better, convinced themselves that there was little or no risk.  Nor did the town leaders raise the hard questions.  As a result, a middle school and a rest home were built only a short distance away.  It’s a deeply unfortunate situation, but one that is likely repeated nationwide.

To me, one of the most shocking facts, as reported the evening of the fire, was that the emergency plan on file for the plant stated that the worst case environmental problem was a ten-minute release of ammonia gas that would not pose a risk to the population.  Given the nature of the materials on the site, it was nonsense.  And the fireball proved that.  But it was what people needed to believe for the town to grow.  And I’m convinced that people believe what they need to believe.

I’m also sure that West isn’t the only town with a dangerous plant in inappropriate proximity to vulnerable populations.  It’s in the nature of how our industries and our communities how grown.  And it’s probably tied to our national thinking about growth.  It’s a problem that may appear insurmountable, but I have a suggestion to offer.

Two months ago, Charles Marohn of StrongTowns graciously participated in a video conversation with Petaluma Urban Chat.  Marohn is known for his concern, which I share, that federal and state funds are too often directed toward new infrastructure projects which local governments can’t afford to maintain, creating long-term financial problems.

Marohn is also dubious about the role of stimulus funding during economic downturns, so his two beliefs dovetail neatly.  But I think stimulus has a legitimate place.  At end of his presentation, I asked him how federal stimulus funding should be provided if new infrastructure is the wrong concept.  He worked around to it slowly, but finally conceded that infrastructure maintenance was probably the best use of stimulus funds.

I wasn't enamored with the response.  It seemed to me to be little more than kicking the can down the road, relieving local government of making hard decisions about infrastructure they can’t afford.

The Texas explosion may point to a different and better solution.  Perhaps federal stimulus funding can be directed toward fixing adjacency problems that grew gradually and with little ill intent, but have now become untenable.  It would be putting federal dollars toward remedying problems that resulted from a mindset in which the federal government shares culpability.

Perhaps a federal agency could continually identify adjacency problems and develop plans for remedying the problems, but would only release construction funds when a recession looms.

There are at least two hurdles with this idea.  First, business owners may be unwilling to identify their plants as worthy of funds for fear that the self-identification could be used as evidence against them in lawsuits.  Some type of immunity would need to be provided.

Second, Congress would need to exercise self-restraint.  Although it would be tempting to fund every adjacency problem as soon as it was identified, indeed it might feel immoral not to do so, doing so would only create another perpetual federal spending program and would eliminate any stimulus function.

(Yes, I understand the problem with asking Congress to show restraint.  We reelect Representatives and Senators who deliver funds, not restraint.  I wish I had a solution to this one.)

My thinking on this concept is still unrefined.  But I like the feel of it.

Federal funding toward brownfield cleanup could similar, using federal funds as a one-time resource to correct situations that were the result of flawed national thinking.  Luckily, the concept is already moving ahead in Congress, although it isn’t yet tied to a stimulus role.

What happened in West, Texas is a tragedy from which the town may never recover.  But perhaps it can point us toward a way to prevent the next disaster.  And toward letting our towns function as the safe urban centers that they need to be.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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