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Agencies Weigh Facility Safety

Executive Order: Task force recommendations could include tighter control of ammonium nitrate

by Glenn Hess
March 14, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 11

Credit: Adrees Latif/Reuters/Newscom
Aftermath of last year’s explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.
An aerial view of the aftermath of an explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas, on April 18, 2013.
Credit: Adrees Latif/Reuters/Newscom
Aftermath of last year’s explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

Adding ammonium nitrate and other explosive chemicals to the list of substances the Environmental Protection Agency regulates under the risk management provisions of the 1990 Clean Air Act is one option being considered by a federal task force working to improve the safety and security of U.S. chemical facilities.

Mathy Stanislaus, an EPA assistant administrator, delivered that news to the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee at a hearing earlier this month. Stanislaus cochairs a multiagency chemical safety working group that plans to send a set of safety recommendations to the White House by the end of May.

President Barack Obama established the Chemical Facility Safety & Security Working Group last year in response to the April 2013 explosion and fire at a fertilizer distribution facility in West, Texas. The accident left 15 people dead.

Obama directed EPA, the Department of Homeland Security, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, and other federal agencies to coordinate on chemical safety regulations and issue recommendations for new rules.

At the hearing, Stanislaus told lawmakers that the task force had issued safety advisories and guidance to industry trade groups outlining best practices for the handling and storage of hazardous chemicals, including ammonium nitrate, the substance linked to the West, Texas, explosion.

But Democrats on the committee expressed dismay that nearly a year after the disaster in Texas, ammonium nitrate had not been added to EPA’s risk management program. Under that initiative, companies that use or store certain toxic or flammable chemicals above threshold amounts are required to take steps to prevent accidental airborne releases of those substances.

“I don’t know why it’s taking you so long to figure this out,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Environment & Public Works Committee chairman, told Stanislaus. “We’ve had a lot of deaths from ammonium nitrate.”

Republican members of the committee cautioned against overregulation. EPA and other agencies should focus on enforcing existing rules, rather than creating new ones, said Sen. John A. Barrasso (R-Wyo.). “My hope is that federal agencies can better work together.”



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