Volume 92 Issue 2 | p. 7 | News of The Week
Issue Date: January 13, 2014 | Web Date: January 9, 2014

Plant Safety Under Scrutiny

Task Force: Agencies consider sweeping change in chemical facility regulations and practices
Department: Government & Policy
Keywords: chemical plants, facilities, safety, security
Regulations on chemical storage and plant operations may face major changes.
Credit: Shutterstock
Photo of chemical storage tanks.
Regulations on chemical storage and plant operations may face major changes.
Credit: Shutterstock

The Obama Administration is weighing a major overhaul of the way flammable, hazardous, and explosive chemicals are handled and stored. The discussion is part of an initiative aimed at preventing disasters such as the deadly blast last year at a fertilizer warehouse in West, Texas.

To inform the overhaul discussion, a 23-page list of policy options was released last week by the Chemical Facility Safety & Security Working Group. The multi­agency task force was set up shortly after the West Fertilizer Co. disaster by President Barack Obama to develop a plan to bolster safety and security at U.S. chemical facilities. The options include requiring the use of safer chemicals and processes at manufacturing facilities and expanding existing regulatory programs to cover additional chemicals.

The task force also suggests that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration should harmonize and modernize their industrial safety programs. Such actions would strengthen coordination among the federal agencies responsible for regulating chemical plant operations. They would also help put an end to conflicting federal, state, and local rules governing safety at chemical facilities.

And the group is floating the option of replacing the current regulatory process with the “safety case” model used in the U.K. There, companies develop their own plant safety management system that is closely overseen by regulators. A similar recommendation was made in December by the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board.

The working group, led by the secretaries of Homeland Security and Labor and the EPA administrator, stresses that the potential actions are only a starting point.

“This document is a tool for prompting additional thought and obtaining additional information necessary to further evaluate, refine, and supplement these initial options,” the task force wrote. “[We] anticipate that the options may change significantly in the coming months.”

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry trade association, says it is encouraged that the working group is considering ways for agencies to better share information with first responders and to identify noncompliant facilities. But ACC also says it is concerned that the government may “further complicate an overly complex regulatory system by creating requirements for assessing safer alternatives.”

Industry groups have long argued that a mandate for so-called inherently safer technology would be costly and is unnecessary because existing programs have already reduced risks substantially.

However, activist organizations say the current regulatory scheme is inadequate because it is focused on risk management rather than risk prevention. “For decades, voluntary measures have gotten us disasters such as West, Texas, and leave us more vulnerable to terrorism,” says Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace. “New requirements that actually prevent disasters are essential.”

After holding a series of public meetings and gathering public comments, the task force is required to deliver a plan with its recommendations to the President by May 1.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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