President Barack Obama took a step toward siding with environmental and safety advocates -- and against industry -- in laying out a broad plan to tighten security measures at chemical plants yesterday.
Months after a fatal blast at a fertilizer depot in Texas, Obama ordered his administration to develop proposals to keep chemical facilities, refineries and water-treatment plants safe from explosions or toxic releases. Safety advocates want the government to mandate that explosives such as ammonium nitrate, a widely used fertilizer implicated in the Texas blast, not be used or require that it be stored in a way that lessens its danger.
Adopting that strategy would be a blow to industry, which has been trying to fend off wide-ranging mandates on the use and storage of chemicals for a decade.
“I read this as saying we are still very much in the game,” said Scott Nelson, a lawyer for Public Citizen, who wrote a petition signed by safety groups calling for a mandate on industry to use less-hazardous materials. “They are focused on their regulatory authority.”
Obama yesterday ordered the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Labor and Homeland Security to develop proposals to lower the risks of toxic releases or explosions such as the April 17 one at Adair Grain Inc. in West, Texas that killed at least 14 people and injured more than 300.
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.
Obama should be commended for “directing federal agencies, for the first time, to organize themselves in a way that ensures that the patchwork of regulations work for the American people and actually keep our communities safer and more secure,” Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security committee, said in a statement.
A Homeland Security official, David Wulf, told that committee at a hearing yesterday that the agency was working to speed up approval of security plans for chemical facilities, and preparing long-overdue rule to track the sale of ammonium nitrate, which was used by Timothy McVeigh in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168.
“Some of these goals or themes are things we’ve been supportive of,” said Richard Gupton, the senior vice president of the Agricultural Retailers Association, which represents depots such as Adair. (Adair itself was not a member.) “Having better coordination is what needs to take place.”
Gupton said his group would oppose rules to require chemical formulations with lower explosive risks, or limit the quantities of chemicals that plants can hold to prevent risks.
“We would have concerns with a federal mandate,” he said.
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 order also gives those agencies 90 days to identify best practices, “including through the use of safer alternatives.”
“There is not much reading of the tea leaves needed there,” Rick Hind, legislative director for the environmental group Greenpeace, said. “We wanted regulations and guidance, and that’s what’s happening.”
In its preliminary findings on the West blast, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said that the warehouse itself and the bins holding the ammonium nitrate were combustible, made from wood, and the building had no sprinkler system. It raised the possibility of mixing ammonium nitrate with calcium carbonate, which “practically eliminates any risk of explosion.”
After Obama’s announcement yesterday, board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso urged ammonium nitrate be “more comprehensively regulated.”
Public health and safety groups renewed their request to the administration yesterday to take far-reaching action.
A letter Hind handed to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy 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,” according the letter, which was signed by the Sierra Club, United Auto Workers and MoveOn.org.
The EPA is still considering using just that approach, according to a letter it sent Representative Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican. “EPA is currently evaluating various methods of improving increased chemical plant safety including safer management, increased preparedness management, and facility design and operations,” the agency said in the letter, sent yesterday.
When the final rules are issued, they may not be as onerous as feared by some in industry, said Jamie Conrad, a lawyer who works with the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates. “I know people in industry are quite alarmed,” he said in an interview. “But this is aimed at facilities that were falling through the cracks.”
The Fertilizer Institute, which represents 150 producers and retailers, supports the president’s order, said Kathy Mathers, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based trade group. The order could help the government find regulatory gaps and overlaps and spur retailers to follow best practices developed by the national fire code, she said.
“After West, we realize there are some retailers that don’t understand the complete extent of regulations they must comply with,” Mathers said by phone. “If West had been in compliance with the fire code, that could have made a difference.”
“There is a role for everyone in ensuring the safety of the communities that plants operate in,” Mathers said.