Federal Agencies Aim To Prevent The Next Deadly Chemical Plant Explosion

An investigator pauses while sifting through the debris of the destroyed fertilizer plant in West, Texas, Thursday, May 2, 20
An investigator pauses while sifting through the debris of the destroyed fertilizer plant in West, Texas, Thursday, May 2, 2013. Investigators face a slew of challenges in figuring out what caused the explosion at the fertilizer plant that killed 14 people and destroyed part of the small Texas town. (AP Photo/LM Otero, Pool)

WASHINGTON -- Federal agencies on Friday released new proposals meant to address safety concerns at chemical plants across the country, a response to a directive issued by President Barack Obama in the wake of the deadly explosion last year at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

Obama asked agencies to come up with a list of potential changes following the blast in April, which killed 15 and injured several hundred others. The proposals come from a working group created by the president, which includes representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor, the Department of Homeland Security, and a number of other federal agencies with oversight on these issues. The list includes a number of options for strengthening regulations, issuing new guidance, and expanding the number of chemicals considered a concern. It also includes suggestions for safer storage and handling of ammonium nitrate, the volatile chemical that caused the Texas explosion.

The proposals were initially due at the end of October, but were delayed by the government shutdown. The document was released on Friday evening, two months late.

While describing the list of proposals as "not a home run," Rick Hind, the legislative director at Greenpeace, said that there are a number of "promising" suggestions included. He noted that the memo mentions that stakeholders have pushed for incorporating "inherently safer technologies" into regulations, and includes a request for additional information on that issue. Environmental groups, unions and community groups have advocated for regulations that call for safer options, arguing that such rules would push industries that use explosive, noxious, or otherwise dangerous chemicals to research and develop alternatives that are less problematic.

According to recent Greenpeace research, there are 473 chemical facilities in the U.S. in which a serious incident would put 100,000 or more people at risk. Hind argued that the group's proposals should focus more on "risk prevention" -- rather than taking a "risk management" approach, as they do currently. He also stressed that there need to be tougher requirements, instead of voluntary programs.

"The days of volunteerism are over," Hind said. "We aren't going to prevent disasters by believing in the Easter Bunny, or what they call 'market forces.'"

The proposals also include options that would require a greater number of companies -- including oil and gas drillers, farmers, and possibly others -- to disclose any potentially dangerous chemicals they possess.

The chemical industry has already pushed back against the new ideas. A spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, the trade group representing the industry, told Bloomberg News that the proposals would “further complicate an overly complex regulatory system by creating requirements for assessing safer alternatives."

The federal working group said that the list released Friday is "a tool for prompting additional thought and obtaining additional information necessary to further evaluate, refine, and supplement these initial options," and noted that they "anticipate that the options may change significantly in the coming months."

The working group plans to hold listening sessions in various cities for communities and stakeholders to offer feedback on the proposals. There are three scheduled in California this week, as well as one in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 14 and Houston, Texas, on Jan. 24.

Michael Wright, the director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers, which represents many workers in chemical industrial facilities, also expressed cautious optimism, but urged the working group to move forward soon with actual rules. "We're hopeful about this process, but the jury's out on whether something meaningful will come out of it or whether it will just be a big exercise in talk," Wright told The Huffington Post. "One of my fears is that, the further we get from the initiating event in West, Texas, the easier it is for this to conclude with a big report, and no real regulatory change. That would be a tragedy, and that would set us up for the next terrible accident."

"They put out a lot of options, they're talking about taking precautions," said Michele Roberts, co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, which works with communities near chemical facilities. "But at the end of the day, for us we need this to be solidified in standards, guidance, and regulations so that we can hold feet to the fire on this."



Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion