U.S. Farmers to Drillers May Need to Report Chemicals

Farmers and oil drillers may be required to report their use of explosive chemicals under measures the Obama administration is considering to avoid disasters such as a Texas blast that killed 14 people last year.

Policy options from an inter-agency working group appointed in response to the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, in April were posted to the regulations.gov website today. Other rules under consideration would require the use of safer alternatives to explosive or toxic chemicals, which could require changes at refineries and plants.

The government may “further complicate an overly complex regulatory system by creating requirements for assessing safer alternatives,” Scott Jensen, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, said in a statement. Other options are more in line with industry’s approach, he said.

President Barack Obama favored legislation to require adoption of safer technologies when he was a senator and in October ordered agencies to bolster chemical security after the Texas blast. A fire at a Adair Grain Inc. fertilizer depot triggered an explosion of ammonium nitrate, leveling the plant and leaving a deep crater.

Specifically, the agency consortium appointed by Obama said it was considering lowering the threshold at which the government would be notified that ammonium nitrate is being used or stored; requiring farmers to report on the so-called chemicals of interest they possess; and writing rules that would mandate oil drillers to track and report on the dangerous chemicals they possess.

Prevent Catastrophe

Lobbying groups representing oil companies and farmers said they needed to study the policy recommendations before determining if they would support them.

“If there’s a risk that needs to be addressed, we’ll sit down with the appropriate authorities and discuss it,” Paul Schlegel, director of the energy and environment team at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said in an interview. “But we’re not prepared to say that agriculture is a risk that needs federal regulation at this time.”

Supporters of stricter requirements say the April 17 disaster shows companies should switch to chemicals or mixes that are inert to prevent catastrophic risks rather than seek to manage them. While legislation to make changes has failed in Congress, Obama’s regulations may achieve the result, health and safety advocates say.

Years Away

“This is the moment in a generation to inject prevention into the process,” Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace, said in an interview.

The inter-agency group is asking for comment on the proposals by the end of March and will then send a final proposal to the president soon after. Final rules are still months or even years away.

“We anticipate that the options may change significantly in the coming months,” the agencies said in their report today.

Ammonium nitrate was used by Timothy McVeigh in the 1995 bombing of a government building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, including children in a day-care facility, and led to one of the nation’s biggest industrial disasters, the explosion of two cargo ships in Texas City, Texas, in 1947.

It’s widely used by miners, road builders and farmers.

Workplace safety agencies have “rules sufficient to cover the risks presented by ammonium nitrate,” Wyoming Senator John Barrasso wrote in a letter to Environmental Protection Agency in October. “Imposing additional requirements on compliant companies will not address the safety risks.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Drajem in Washington at mdrajem@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net

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