Obama Orders Safety Review of Chemical Plants

By Roy Maurer Aug 1, 2013

Nearly four months after a fertilizer plant explosion devastated the town of West, Texas, President Barack Obama ordered a government review of safety and security procedures at U.S. chemical plants.

Obama signed an executive order Aug. 1, 2013, instructing federal agencies to develop a plan within 90 days to identify measures to improve safety at plants that store dangerous chemicals, including ammonium nitrate, the substance blamed for the West explosion that killed 15 people.

“Chemicals and the facilities that manufacture, store, distribute and use them are essential to our economy,” a White House statement on the executive order said. “However, incidents such as the devastating explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas in April are tragic reminders that the handling and storage of chemicals present serious risks that must be addressed.”

The explosion is still under investigation, but the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) reported in June 2013 that the decades-old standards that regulate fertilizer chemicals are inadequate.

CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso applauded the order. “I am encouraged that the executive order calls for the revision and strengthening of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Risk Management Program and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Process Safety Management standard. The board has long urged such improvements, specifically that reactive hazards—such as ammonium nitrate—be more comprehensively regulated.”

In a conference call, Assistant Secretary of Labor David Michaels, the head of OSHA, said his agency strongly supports the efforts of the president to improve and enhance chemical plant safety.

Calling All Agencies

The executive order creates a multi-agency group, led by the secretaries of Homeland Security and Labor and the head of the EPA to better coordinate operation and information sharing with states; update policies, regulations and standards; and come up with regulations for handling hazardous chemicals.

For example, agencies are charged with finding new options to address the safe storage, handling and sale of ammonium nitrate. Agencies will also determine if additional chemicals should be covered by existing federal regulatory programs. They will also consider whether to pursue an “independent, high-level assessment of the U.S. approach to chemical facility risk management to identify additional recommendations for all levels of government and industry to reduce the risk of catastrophic chemical incidents in the future.”

The order directs key federal agencies to convene a wide range of interested stakeholders, including representatives from industry, state, local and tribal governments, nongovernmental organizations, and the first responder community, to identify and share best practices and look into potential public-private partnerships.

The EPA’s Risk Management Program is aimed at reducing chemical risk at the local level. EPA’s rules require owners and operators of a facility that manufactures, uses, stores or otherwise handles certain listed flammable and toxic substances to develop a risk management program that includes hazard assessment, prevention mechanisms and emergency response measures. This information helps local fire, police and emergency response personnel prepare for and respond to chemical accidents, while allowing citizens to understand chemical hazards in their communities.

OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) standard sets requirements for the management of highly hazardous substances to prevent and mitigate the catastrophic releases of flammable, explosive, reactive and toxic chemicals. The PSM standard covers the manufacturing of explosives and processes involving threshold quantities of flammable liquids and flammable gasses, as well as 137 other highly hazardous chemicals.

In 2011, OSHA launched its Chemical Plant National Emphasis Program to conduct focused inspections at randomly selected facilities likely to have highly hazardous chemicals in quantities covered by the PSM standard. Under this program, OSHA has corrected serious safety issues through approximately 350 inspections and the issuance of 1,325 violations, according to the agency.

The Department of Homeland Security is responsible for implementing the security of chemicals and chemical facilities.

The West blast prompted a debate over the nation’s chemical-safety laws and led to criticism of the Obama administration’s safety record. On July 25, 2013, the CSB officially declared that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) response to seven chemical safety recommendations—on combustible dust, fuel gas and the process safety management standard— to be “unacceptable.” This was the first time the agency had ever done that.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.

Related Article:

Panel Declares OSHA’s Inaction on Industrial Chemical Safety ‘Unacceptable’, SHRM Online Safety & Security, July 2013

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