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EPA proposes new regulations for chemical plants

Agency would require consideration, not implementation, of inherently safer technologies

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
February 29, 2016

Photo shows President Barack Obama speaking at 2013 memorial service for victims of West, Texas, explosion with coffins and U.S. flags in foreground.
Credit: Newscom
President Obama speaks at the 2013 memorial for 15 victims of an ammonium nitrate fire and explosion in West, Texas. Twelve of whom were emergency responders.

Chemical companies and refineries would have to consider inherently safer technologies and, in some cases, undergo third-party, independent safety audits under a new Environmental Protection Agency proposal.

The U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board’s video explains what led to the fatal 2013 explosion of ammonium nitrate that flattened a swath of West, Texas.
Credit: CSB/YouTube

The proposal, announced on Feb. 25, would modify existing regulations that require 12,500 facilities that handle highly hazardous chemicals to develop risk management plans (RMPs). Over the past decade, some 1,500 accidents have occurred at these facilities, causing 60 deaths and 17,000 injuries, according to EPA.

President Barack Obama ordered EPA to re-examine its RMP regulations after a 2013 ammonium nitrate fertilizer explosion that killed 15 people, mostly firefighters, at a farm supply warehouse in West, Texas. This move was part of a presidential order directing federal agencies to examine their health and safety regulations. This is the first regulatory proposal to result from Obama’s directive.

EPA’s proposal would, for the first time, require a subsection of companies, including refiners and chemical makers, to consider using alternative, safer technologies as they regularly update their RMPs, which is required at least every five years.

Consideration is all that would be required; implementation of safer technologies would not be, stresses Mathy Stanislaus, EPA assistant administrator for land and emergency management. EPA would have access to a company’s assessment of safer technologies but the public would not, Stanislaus tells C&EN.

The Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, a mix of community groups, unions, and others, fault the proposal for failing to make the safer technology analysis public and for covering too few companies. The organization point outs that 87% of facilities that must have RMPS would be exempt from the proposed new requirement.

Also, the proposal would require companies that have chemical accidents to hire an independent third party to conduct compulsory safety audits, rather doing these audits themselves, as they do now, says Stanislaus. And after an accident or a near-miss incident, companies would have to conduct root-cause analyses and prepare incident reports for EPA.

The American Chemistry Council, an industry association, warns that the proposed audits and examination of safer alternative technology “will create unnecessary and potentially detrimental complexity.” The U.S. Chemical Safety Board and others have for years urged EPA to add reactive chemicals, such as ammonium nitrate, to the substances regulated under the RMP program. However, the proposal would not do so. Consequently, EPA’s proposal will have no effect on facilities like the West warehouse.

Stanislaus says finalization of the proposed regulation is a top priority for his office but would provide no estimate of when it would be completed.


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