WASHINGTON –- The 16-day government shutdown earlier this month has delayed the new chemical safety rules that President Barack Obama called for in response to the deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, last April.
Obama issued an executive order on Aug. 1 in response to the West disaster, which killed 15 people and destroyed much of the neighborhood around the plant. The order calls on a number of federal agencies to update regulations and coordinate on initiatives that would improve safety at chemical facilities across the country. That includes the formation of a new Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group made up of the top officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security. The order called for a number of those recommendations to be delivered within 90 days, which would conclude on Oct. 31.
But The Huffington Post has confirmed that the government shutdown has delayed work on those recommendations. The EPA said in a statement that the anticipated delivery of the guidance probably won't come for at least another month:
Due to the lapse in appropriations and the need to reschedule stakeholder outreach efforts, agencies participating in the chemical facility EO working group have been given additional time to submit some deliverables. Agencies are working on revising deadlines, as needed. The working group plans to provide an update on overall progress in early December.
The agencies' public listening sessions on chemical safety were also delayed. The first is now scheduled for Nov. 5 in Texas City, Texas. A second hearing is scheduled for Nov. 15 in Washington, D.C.
Chemical Safety Board spokeswoman Hillary Cohen also confirmed the delay, and told The Huffington Post that they are "cooperating with the relevant agencies to move forward" on meeting the executive order. Cohen also noted that staff furloughs delayed the board's investigative work into the West Fertilizer Company explosion as well. A public hearing to present the preliminary findings of their investigation, originally scheduled for Oct. 24, had to be postponed and isn't expected to happen until sometime in early 2014.
The DHS also confirmed that its work on the order has been delayed.
Environmental and public health groups hope that the delays don't drag on for too long. "Obviously the goal is the quality of the policy, not whether it's a few weeks different in time," said Rick Hind, the legislative director at Greenpeace. "The problem here is that all of us have been dealing with EPA for 30 years and we know that delay can often lead to more delay."
As Hind notes, rules to strengthen chemical safety at hundreds of facilities around the country date back much farther than the West explosion. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, Bush's EPA head, Christine Todd Whitman, attempted to set new rules for chemical facilities. But the Bush White House, under pressure from the chemical industry, wouldn't endorse them. Whitman wrote an op-ed about it in The New York Times in August 2012 and has been speaking out in the past months on the need for those rules. In a call with reporters that the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters organized in early October, Whitman said the rules are already "long overdue." While the explosion in West appeared to be an accident rather than an attack, she said, "it reminds us just how devastating a deliberate release could be."
Michele Roberts, co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, which works with communities near chemical facilities, said that Obama's executive order was an important first step — but it needs to be followed up with meaningful rules.
"The hope of communities, at least those I serve, is that at the end of the day, these recommendations manifest into guidance, standards and regulations that would better protect the communities that are close to these facilities, as well as the workers who are in and around these facilities," Roberts said.