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Boxer Gives EPA Ultimatium on Chemical Safety After Blast

A Senate committee chairman demanded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency act within two weeks to adopt a decade-old safety recommendation tied to the explosive agents blamed for a fatal Texas fertilizer blast.

Senator Barbara Boxer, in a clash today with the EPA official overseeing the safety of chemical plants, said she would demand the agency adopt the 2002 proposal issued by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and respond to her within two weeks.

“We are going to work with you and, if we have to, against you, to make sure this happens,” Boxer, a California Democrat and head of the Environment and Public Works Committee, told EPA deputy assistant administrator Barry Breen after he testified. “I am unsympathetic to the attitude I hear, which is a lack of urgency.”

Ammonium nitrate, which caused the fatal April explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant, is now regulated by local, state and federal agencies in a “patchwork that has many large holes,” U.S. Chemical Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said at the hearing. Those separate rules let companies store the explosive fertilizer in wooden buildings and near homes and schools, he said.

“This situation must be addressed,” Moure-Eraso said in his testimony. “Regulations need to be modernized -- but more inspection and prevention are needed as well.”

The Chemical Safety Board investigates industrial accidents and issues recommendations to regulators, such as the EPA, which has no obligation to act. The Washington-based board lacks the authority to force action by other government regulators or companies.

Potential Options

The EPA is “looking at a number of potential policy options,” Breen told Boxer today.

The explosion at the Adair Grain Inc. plant in West, Texas, killed 14 people has led to scrutiny of U.S. oversight of chemical and fertilizer facilities, with lawmakers such as Boxer urging the EPA to take more action to regulate explosive or toxic chemicals. Investigators say pressure and heat from a fire caused the ammonium nitrate stored in the Texas facility to erupt into a large explosion.

The U.S. has about 90 facilities -- including chemical factories, refineries, water-treatment plants and fertilizer depots -- that in a worst-case scenario would pose risks to more than 1 million people, according to a Congressional Research Service report in November that analyzed reports submitted by companies to the EPA.

Late today, the EPA issued a statement saying it “shares concerns raised by Sen. Boxer.”

“EPA is actively examining actions to improve chemical plant safety,” the agency said in an e-mailed statement. Boxer “called further discussions in upcoming hearings and EPA looks forward to participating.”

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