President Barack Obama is ordering federal agencies to review safety rules at chemical facilities in response to the deadly April explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant.
In an executive order announced Thursday, Obama tasks agencies with identifying new ways to safely store and secure ammonium nitrate, the explosive chemical investigators say caused the blast. Agencies are also being told to determine whether additional chemicals should be covered by federal regulatory programs.
The massive explosion at the plant in the community of West, Texas, killed 15 people and leveled hundreds of structures, including three of the town's four schools. It also prompted new scrutiny of regulations at chemical plants and the risks posed by deadly chemicals to people living in surrounding areas.
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While the explosion is still being investigated, preliminary findings have been presented to Congress. A report sent to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in June showed that the decades-old standards used to regulate fertilizer chemicals are far weaker than those used in other countries.
The report concluded that the safety of ammonium nitrate fertilizer storage "falls under a patchwork of U.S. regulatory standards and guidance -- a patchwork that has many large holes."
After that report, EPW Charirman Sen. Barbara Boxer pushed for change in ammonium nitrate storage and wanted the EPA to update its alert on the compound.
Following the president's statement Thursday, Boxer had this to add:
“Knowing the President’s deep commitment to the people of West, Texas after the tragic explosion of ammonium nitrate, I informed him last week of specific ideas that emanated from a hearing I chaired at the Environment and Public Works Committee. I couldn’t be more gratified to learn today that he is taking executive action to follow through on the very solutions that were discussed and that I promised to pursue.
As I told the President, the EPA has not updated its alert since 1997, and the best practices recommended by other federal agencies such as OSHA are not being uniformly followed.
This progress shows that when we use our mandated oversight role to solve serious problems facing the American people – and the President agrees with our solutions – we can move forward without changing laws to protect our families and communities.
United Steelworkers International President Leo W. Gerard applauded the president's action and said the formation of a new Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group "will streamline the regulatory process that all Americans depend on for safety and security -- both on the job and where we live."
"Ultimately these measures will save jobs, save lives, and improve both public health and the environment," said USW International Vice President at Large Carol Landry.
Meanwhile, as city by Boxer, the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, does not regulate the chemical. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that ammonium nitrate be stored separately from other combustibles in a room that has a partition that can withstand fire for up to an hour. But the agency had not inspected the West plant since 1985.
Some agencies do have rules on ammonium nitrate, but none apparently applied to the facility in West.
As the investigation continues, the White House said it wanted to move forward where it could to address chemical safety concerns. Obama's executive order also calls for improved coordination among state and local agencies that deal with chemical plants. And it tasks the federal government with modernizing its information sharing about the plants.