By Hector L. Rivero, President & CEO, Texas Chemical Council and Association of Chemical Industry of Texas
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A few months after a deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas, President Barack Obama has signed an executive order that aims at increasing safety and oversight of chemical plants across the country. In a series of measures, various federal, state and local agencies would share more information and look for best practices to reduce risks from facilities like the West Fertilizer Co. plant.
The chemical industry welcomes the president’s executive order because it’s an opportunity to share information and best practices between regulatory agencies and manufacturers to ensure the public’s safety around large and small facilities. Additionally, the executive order can help to identify and clarify overlapping regulatory oversight by different agencies.
The president’s action came as witnesses told a U.S. House subcommittee recently that chemical manufacturers and regulatory agencies are making strides to improve safety and security in the chemical workplace and surrounding communities. President Obama acknowledged in his order the federal government already has developed and implemented numerous programs aimed at reducing the safety risks and security risks associated with hazardous chemicals. “However, additional measures can be taken by executive departments and agencies with regulatory authority to further improve chemical facility safety and security in coordination with owners and operators,” he said.
The explosion in April at the West Fertilizer Co. plant took 15 lives and destroyed hundreds of homes and a public school. While the origin of the fire that led to the explosion has still not been determined, investigators have said it was ammonium nitrate stored at the plant that exploded. Among several issues believed to have been a factor in the fire and explosion are the facts the facility had stored the chemical in wood buildings and had no sprinklers.
Many of those killed in the explosion were first responders, who rushed toward the plant to fight the fire after it ignited. The executive order calls for improving coordination with local governments and first responders, and to ensure first responders have “ready access to key information in a usable format” about chemical facilities.
In April, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Infrastructure Safety Compliance Division has assigned about 3,500 high-risk chemical plants to risk-based tiers since 2007. But its approach does not consider all consequences, threats and vulnerabilities from a terrorist attack, according to GAO Homeland Security and Justice Director Stephen L. Caldwell. The Infrastructure Safety Compliance Division has begun to review its security plan review process, which could take years, but the division is examining how it could accelerate that process.
Federal regulation under DHS’ Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards has made significant progress in the past year, according to DHS Infrastructure Safety Compliance Division Director David Wulf. “We feel strongly our private sector partners are key to our efforts to enhance data sharing, increase cross-training and identify areas for possible regulatory changes, as well as identifying possible gaps in existing statutory authorities,” he said. “Since the West, Texas, tragedy, we have engaged with numerous members of industry and all have agreed we must work together to prevent future incidents. Industry has offered to spread our message and do [its] part to promote safety and security at chemical facilities.”
It’s important to note much of the chemical industry already has an aggressive safety culture, but we must make sure all plants and facilities are sharing best practices and participating in local emergency planning committees.
There are regulations in place at both the state and federal levels that require the submission of data relative to chemicals of interest and quantities on site that would have identified the West facility as a potentially high-risk site. Agencies should have the appropriate tools to effectively train its field inspectors, educate the regulated community and enforce existing regulations.