President Barack Obama ordered the drafting of tighter rules for the handling and storage of ammonium nitrate, the chemical responsible for a deadly explosion in April at a Texas fertilizer plant, as part of a plan to improve safety.
Explosions such as the one that killed at least 14 people in West, Texas, are “tragic reminders that the handling and storage of chemicals present serious risks that must be addressed,” according to a White House fact sheet issued today along with an executive order. The announcement came as the administration faces growing pressure from lawmakers of both parties and safety advocates to beef up federal oversight of chemical facilities, refineries and fertilizer depots.
“This is a step in the right direction,” Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security committee, said at a hearing after the White House announcement. “The West facility was a disaster waiting to happen, but as dangerous as West was, the Department of Homeland Security had no knowledge of it.”
A series of fatal explosions this year have highlighted the risks posed by these facilities, common in agricultural areas. In addition to the 14 killed in the April blast in Texas, a subsidiary of Williams Cos. (WMB:US) had a chemical plant explode in Louisiana in June.
“Our chemical security system is fraying,” Representative Henry Waxman, California Democrat, said today. “The overhaul ordered by the president will help secure communities living next to facilities with huge stockpiles of explosive chemicals.”
Obama ordered federal agencies to come up with new options to deal with “safe and secure storage, handling and sale” of ammonium nitrate within 90 days.
The April 17 explosion at Adair Grain Inc. left a crater 93 feet (28 meters) wide by 10 feet (3 meters) deep and represents the deadliest U.S. industrial accident in three years. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said that 30 tons of ammonium nitrate at the facility detonated because of a fire in the wooden warehouse.
The blast prompted a debate over the adequacy of chemical-safety laws and regulations and led to criticism of the Obama administration’s safety record. Most of those critics praised the administration’s move today.
“As much as I don’t like the big footprint of government, I think the president’s order is a positive move,” said West Mayor Tommy Muska. “I don’t like more oversight, but I agree with his decision and I applaud it.”
Still, delays remain. Five years after Congress mandated that sales of ammonium nitrate be tracked, federal rules to do that haven’t been issued. The Department of Homeland Security is still developing its final rule now, David Wulf, the program’s director, told the House Homeland Security panel today. The department’s approval of site plans is so far behind schedule it could take seven to nine years to approve the 3,120 plans in the queue, according to a General Accountability Office report today.
Separately, the Environmental Protection Agency has a risk-management program for facilities such as the West fertilizer plant, though it doesn’t require disclosure of ammonium nitrate. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer on July 9 said the EPA should add the chemical to that program. The order issued today requires EPA to review that risk-management program to assess if additional substances or types of hazards should be regulated.
In addition to Republicans, public health and safety groups are pressing Obama to take far-reaching action. A letter those groups handed to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy today called on the agency to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to force chemical makers to use safer chemicals or processes.
“Prevention is the only fool-proof way to ensure the safety of millions of people whose communities are needlessly in danger,” said the letter, which was signed by the Sierra Club, United Auto Workers and MoveOn.org. Instead of focusing on managing risks, the administration should and can prevent them, they said.
The EPA is considering using just that approach, according to a letter it sent Republican Mike Pompeo of Kansas today. “EPA is currently evaluating various methods of improving increased chemical plant safety including safer management,” the agency said in its letter to the Republican.
Obama directed U.S. agencies to better coordinate operation and information sharing with states, update policies, regulations and standards and prompt the use of best management practices in handling hazardous chemicals, according to the fact sheet.
Obama’s order creates a multi-agency group, led by the secretaries of Homeland Security and Labor and the head of the EPA, to meet at least once a quarter to assess progress in developing safeguards. The group was directed to report to the president within nine months.
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