Pompeo Presses EPA on Chemicals After Texas Explosion

U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo pressed the Environmental Protection Agency to make clear how and when it will regulate chemical security after last month’s fatal blast at a fertilizer plant in Texas.

While environmental groups have urged the agency to clarify its oversight of those facilities, the Kansas Republican wants President Barack Obama’s administration to take a more limited approach and not force companies to switch to safer technologies.

“The West, Texas, incident demonstrates the existing confusion surrounding EPA’s chemicals regulations,” Pompeo wrote today to acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe. “The danger with such a vague law is twofold: It leads to overzealous implementation based on discretionary boundaries for enforcement, and it reduces safety because of the confusion as to what processes and chemicals are actually covered.”

The Texas explosion that killed 14 people has led to scrutiny of U.S. oversight of chemical and fertilizer facilities, with groups such as Greenpeace urging Obama to keep his campaign promises and use the EPA’s existing legal authority to mandate companies to adopt “Inherently Safer Technologies.” Such a step would force companies to replace more explosive or toxic chemicals, adopt safer processes for storage or reduce chemicals held at a site.

90 Facilities

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.

The investigation of the fire at the Adair Grain Inc. facility hasn’t pinpointed the cause, which may include a malfunctioning battery in a golf cart, the electrical system or an intentional act, federal investigators said May 17. Pressure and heat from the fire triggered two explosions of the ammonium nitrate stored at the site, they said.

Pompeo, a critic of the approach backed by environmentalists, has sponsored legislation that would prohibit the agency from mandating the safer-technologies approach. In his letter today, he joined Greenpeace in urging the administration and the EPA to issue regulations laying out what is covered under its rules -- and what isn’t.

“That’s quite an invitation to the EPA,” Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace, said in an interview. “There is a way for EPA to agree with Pompeo, because our petition calls for guidance and regulations as well.”

The EPA doesn’t collect information about ammonium nitrate, the chemical stored in West, Texas. The facility destroyed in the April 17 explosion was approved by state regulators to store 270 tons of ammonium nitrate. Across the nation, more than 2,400 businesses stock ammonium nitrate, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Alisha Johnson, a spokeswoman for the EPA, didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

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