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Agencies Advise On Ammonium Nitrate

Policy: Administration takes initial steps to address worker and public safety issues

by Jeff Johnson
September 5, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 36

Credit: Ron Jenkins/MCT/Newscom
A deadly explosion at a West, Texas, retail supply warehouse may lead to a federal overhaul of chemical safety oversight.
Searchers in protective suits walk through the blast zone of the fertilizer plant that exploded in West, Texas, on Thursday, April 18, 2013. The Wednesday night blast injured dozens, causing an undetermined number of fatalities, as well as massive property damage.
Credit: Ron Jenkins/MCT/Newscom
A deadly explosion at a West, Texas, retail supply warehouse may lead to a federal overhaul of chemical safety oversight.

In a preliminary response to an executive order from President Barack Obama, three federal agencies last week issued a “chemical advisory” on the fertilizer and powerful explosive ammonium nitrate. Although the advisory is nonregulatory, it provides recommendations and lays the groundwork for changes in safety regulations that may come through Obama’s order.

Obama’s order and the federal guidance come a few months after an ammonium nitrate explosion at a farm supply warehouse in West, Texas, destroyed the town and killed 15 people. The combination warehouse and store is similar to some 6,000 other facilities operating in the U.S.

The 20-page document, prepared by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, & Explosives, provides information on the explosive hazards of storing, handling, and managing ammonium nitrate. It is part of an ongoing federal review of hazardous chemicals triggered by the executive order. It lays out the lessons learned from a worldwide history of deadly ammonium nitrate accidents. It also characterizes the chemical’s properties and makes several recommendations for better storage methods, improved emergency planning and response efforts, and other actions that can be taken to avoid an accident.

The federal report was greeted with support by the Fertilizer Institute, a trade association, and by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Environmental & Public Works Committee. Boxer’s committee held a hearing in late June on the West, Texas, accident.

That hearing revealed that the West facility’s handling of ammonium nitrate was exempt from nearly all federal regulatory requirements, except for those of the Department of Homeland Security, which failed to enforce them.

Chemical experts and government officials not involved in the federal review take a more skeptical view of the advisory, calling it a good “interim step” that provides a warning but falls short of filling regulatory gaps.

The Obama executive order puts federal agencies on a tight schedule, calling for a series of steps leading to a thorough examination of federal regulatory gaps, which is to be completed by next spring.



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