Chemical plantsPresidential commission releases chemical plants safety recommendations

Published 13 January 2014

There are 473 chemical facilities in the United States in which accidents would put 100,000 or more people at risk. In the aftermath of the May 2013 deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, President Barack Obama established a working group to develop a list of potential changes to improve the industry’s risk management practices. Nearly two months past the end of October 2013 deadline, the group released their recommendations in early January.

In the aftermath of the May 2013 deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, President Barack Obama established a working group of representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor, the Department of Homeland Security, and a number of other federal agencies with oversight on the chemical industry, to develop a list of potential changes to improve the industry’s risk management practices. Nearly two months past the end of October 2013 deadline, the group released their recommendations on Friday, 3 January 2014. The Huffington Post reports that the document includes options for strengthening regulations, issuing new guidance, and expanding the number of chemicals considered dangerous. The group also suggested plans for safer storage and handling of ammonium nitrate, the volatile chemical responsible for the Texas explosion which killed fifteen people and injured hundreds.

Greenpeace reported that there are 473 chemical facilities in the United States in which accidents would put 100,000 or more people at risk. Rick Hind, legislative director at Greenpeace, argued that the agencies’ recommendations should focus more on risk prevention rather than risk management. Hind also wants the group to recommend tougher requirements instead of voluntary programs for industry procedures. “The days of volunteerism are over,” Hind told Huffington Post. “We aren’t going to prevent disasters by believing in the Easter Bunny, or what they call ‘market forces.’”

The recommendations include plans to require more companies, including oil and gas drillers and farmers, to disclose any potentially dangerous chemicals they possess. The American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, has already rejected many of the proposed recommendations. A spokesperson for the group told Bloomberg News that the recommendations would “further complicate an overly complex regulatory system by creating requirements for assessing safer alternatives.” In response, the president’s group noted that the proposal is “a tool for prompting additional thought and obtaining additional information necessary to further evaluate, refine, and supplement these initial options,” and the group “anticipates that the options may change significantly in the coming months.”

Sessions to discuss the recommendations with stakeholders are planned in various cities, including Washington, D.C., on 14 January and Houston, Texas, on 24 January.

United Steelworkers (USW), a trade group that represents many workers in chemical industry facilities, urged the president’s working group to act swiftly. Michael Wright, the director of health, safety and environment for USW told the Post that the group is “hopeful about this process, but the jury’s out on whether something meaningful will come out of it or whether it will just be a big exercise in talk.” Wright explained, “one of my fears is that, the further we get from the initiating event in West, Texas, the easier it is for this to conclude with a big report, and no real regulatory change. That would be a tragedy, and that would set us up for the next terrible accident.”

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