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Obama Orders Safety Review

White House moves to prevent more chemical plant disasters

by Glenn Hess
August 19, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 33

Credit: Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board
An explosion at the Williams Cos. facility sent workers running for safety.
Photo shows Williams Cos. olefins accident that occurred on June 13, 2013, and killed two workers.
Credit: Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board
An explosion at the Williams Cos. facility sent workers running for safety.

In the wake of two recent deadly explosions in Texas and Louisiana, the White House has ordered federal agencies to improve the safety and security of U.S. chemical plants. President Barack Obama signed this executive order on Aug. 1, and his direct involvement in the issue could be a game changer, say environmental and labor groups. For the past decade they have been clamoring for tighter regulations to prevent disasters at thousands of sites where hazardous chemicals are produced, used, or stored.

“It’s time to modernize chemical facility safety and security regulations to improve performance and accountability by industry and to ensure that no facilities slip through the regulatory gaps,” says Carol Landry, international vice president of United Steelworkers, the largest industrial labor union in North America.

The first of the accidents that spurred the White House action occurred on April 17, when a massive blast killed 15 people and caused hundreds of injuries at the West Fertilizer Co. storage and distribution depot in the small town of West, Texas, a farming community about 20 miles north of Waco. Then on June 13, two men were fatally burned and 114 people were injured after an explosion and fire at the Williams Cos. olefins plant in Geismar, La.

“Chemicals and the facilities that manufacture, store, distribute, and use them are essential to our economy,” the White House said in the executive order. “Past and recent tragedies have reminded us, however, that the handling and storage of chemicals present serious risks that must be addressed.”

Obama’s directive was issued moments before a House of Representatives committee met to discuss the problem of chemical facilities that fail to comply with existing federal regulatory initiatives such as the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS), the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) program for securing chemical infrastructure.

The shortcomings of CFATS were central at the House hearing. The West Fertilizer facility stored enough ammonium nitrate—the chemical blamed for the explosion—and anhydrous ammonia to warrant regulation under CFATS. But DHS was unaware of the facility, even though the company had reported the chemicals to state and local agencies.

The goal of Obama’s order goes beyond improving existing oversight. According to the White House, the objective is to come up with “additional recommendations for all levels of government and industry to reduce the risk of catastrophic chemical incidents in the future.”

The executive order creates a Chemical Facility Safety & Security Working Group chaired by the heads of the Department of Labor and DHS, as well as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Within nine months, the President wants the team to develop “a unified federal approach for identifying and responding to risks” at chemical facilities.

Obama’s order also seeks improved communication and greater sharing of information about chemical facilities among various federal agencies, and with state governments and local emergency responders. And within 90 days, it requires the development of new guidelines for storing and handling ammonium nitrate. Five years ago, Congress directed DHS to establish regulations to track sales of ammonium nitrate, but the department is still working on a final rule.

The executive order also directs the working group to develop within 90 days “options for improved chemical facility safety and security that identifies improvements to existing risk management practices through agency programs.” In addition, it calls for private-sector input in identifying “best practices to reduce safety risks and security risks in the production and storage of potentially harmful chemicals, including through the use of safer alternatives.”

Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace, says the White House action is a step in the right direction, as it may provide an opportunity for EPA to begin a rule-making process to require the use of safer chemicals and processes at thousands of facilities across the U.S.

“Over the next 90 days, we will look to EPA to develop regulatory options to prevent chemical disasters once and for all,” Hinds tells C&EN. “The agency has clear authority to issue new rules and safety standards.”

Greenpeace and other activist organizations have been urging EPA to use its power under the Clean Air Act to require high-risk chemical facilities to adopt so-called inherently safer technology (IST), such as replacing toxic chemicals with safer substitutes wherever feasible.

On behalf of a coalition representing more than 100 environmental and labor groups, Hind delivered a letter to new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on Aug. 1, asking her “to make chemical disaster prevention one of the priority initiatives of your first 100 days in office.”

The chemical industry has long been opposed to a federal IST mandate, arguing that inherent safety is a well-established, process-related engineering concept, but it is unsuited to regulation and has been considered and rejected by Congress in the past.

“Industry continues to evaluate IST and use it where feasible. But we don’t think it is workable within a regulatory construct,” says Scott Jensen, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a trade association representing the nation’s largest chemical manufacturers.

ACC says it welcomes the President’s order. “We believe that agencies should have the appropriate tools to effectively train their field inspectors, educate the regulated community, and enforce existing regulations,” ACC says in a statement. “And just as important, we believe companies have an obligation to understand their legal and regulatory obligations and take action to comply.”

Lawmakers are also applauding the White House for moving to address the need for better coordination and communication among the key agencies responsible for regulating plant safety and security. But at the recent House hearing they chided DHS for failing to identify high-risk chemical facilities that are required to conduct vulnerability assessments and prepare site security plans.

“Americans have been forced to ask themselves very tough questions: ‘Can a West-type explosion happen here in my community?’ ” said Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee. “I am troubled by the prospect that thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of these facilities operate under the regulatory radar.”

David Wulf, DHS’s national protection and programs director, said the Administration is committed to “reducing the risks hazardous chemicals pose to first responders, workers, and communities.” Since the recent tragedies, he noted, DHS has met with chemical industry officials, and “all have agreed that we must work together to prevent future incidents.”

Although more than 44,000 facilities have registered with the department under the CFATS program, Wulf acknowledged that DHS needs to do more to identify facilities that hold large quantities of hazardous chemicals but have not self-reported. DHS has been comparing its list of known facilities with EPA databases and plans to do the same with other federal agencies, Wulf testified. In addition, he said, the department is reaching out to state and local agencies that monitor chemical safety.

“We’ve committed to doubling down on our outreach activities,” Wulf told the committee. “We are working with states, and we will also reach out to industry stakeholders to make sure that facilities have the information they need to ensure compliance.”


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