Agencies Offer Ideas for Preventing Chemical Disasters

Gerard Koudenburg/Shutterstock.com

Eight months after last spring’s chemical fertilizer explosion that took 15 lives in West, Texas, the Obama administration has released a set of new regulatory safety options.

The nonprofit advocacy community appears encouraged, but industry less so.

An August 2013 executive order set a deadline of 90 days for an analysis from a working group including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Environmental Protection Agency, Homeland Security Department and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But October’s 16-day government shutdown, among other factors, delayed the release of nine options for comment, including some that would shift industry compliance with preventive measures from a voluntary to a mandatory basis.

The chemical facility safety and security working group defined its responsibility as seeking to “harmonize the collection and exchange of information to streamline enforcement, inform decision makers at all levels of government and first-responders and avoid duplication of regulatory requirements.”

The result is a set of possible changes addressing the safe and secure storage, handling, and sale of ammonium nitrate; options for expanding risk standards and risk management programs at OSHA and EPA; and possibilities for adding chemicals to the list of those monitored for potential terrorist use.

The feedback has been eagerly awaited by environmental and safety specialists in the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, which comprises 100 nonprofit groups that seek more mandatory safety requirements from industry. “The report is encouraging in two respects,” said Rick Hind, legislative director at Greenpeace, a coalition member. “It’s broader in its scope of options for addressing unfinished business that has allowed for gaps in regulatory protections that could help prevent future disasters. And it includes a number of changes involving the overarching issue of risk management,” he said.

Hind added that the coalition would like to see  a shift toward risk prevention, adding that  “volunteerism is fine” in some areas, but “isn’t cutting it” during a time when one in three Americans lives near a facility at risk of an industrial accident or terrorist strike, and “the only thing protecting us is pure dumb luck,” he said. The coalition hopes that “regulatory authorities have the political will to work with stakeholders to make sure we don’t miss a golden opportunity to prevent another West, Texas,” said Hind.

In a contrasting view, the American Chemistry Council issued a statement saying it was encouraged to see the working group considering some of the strategies it recommended, “including opportunities to improve the interaction of existing regulatory programs, leverage industry programs, identify outlier facilities and create better mechanisms for sharing information with first responders. However, we are concerned that [the group] is looking at possibly pursuing options that will further complicate an overly complex regulatory system by creating requirements for assessing safer alternatives, as well as considering a regulatory model that would exceed the authority the agencies have today instead of focusing on how to improve current programs.”

The independent U.S. Chemical Safety Board also has been coordinating with the multi-agency working group.

(Image via Gerard Koudenburg/Shutterstock.com)

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