view counter

Ammonium nitrateFederal oversight of ammonium nitrate exceedingly weak

Published 3 June 2014

A new Government Accountability Office(GAO) report found that the federal government has no way of fully knowing which chemical facilities stockammonium nitrate, a widely used fertilizer which was the cause of the explosion last year at a West, Texas fertilizer plan, which resulted in the death of fourteen people – and which was used by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City twenty years ago. Poor data sharing with states, outdated federal policies, and numerous industry exemptions have contributed to a weak federal oversight. Without improved monitoring, regulators “will not know the extent to which dangerous conditions at some facilities may continue to exist,’’ the GAO report said.

As an Obama administration working group prepares to submit its report on federal oversight of chemical facilities’ storage procedures, a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that the federal government has no way of fully knowing which chemical facilities stock ammonium nitrate, a widely used fertilizer which was the cause of the explosion last year at a West, Texas fertilizer plan, resulting in the death of fourteen people – and which was used by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City twenty years ago. —. Poor data sharing with states, outdated federal policies, and numerous industry exemptions have contributed to a weak federal oversight. Without improved monitoring, regulators “will not know the extent to which dangerous conditions at some facilities may continue to exist,’’ the GAO report said.

According toIowa Farmer Today, DHS’ database of chemical facilities reveals that 1,345 plants in forty-seven states store ammonium nitrate, but checks of similar state records found that roughly 66 percent of ammonium nitrate storage facilities in the United States were not listed in the federal database. The report faulted companies’ noncompliance, legal loopholes, or poor federal coordination with states for the discrepancies. According to the federal database, which includes chemical plants or any location that stores ammonium nitrate, about half of the facilities listed were located in Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas.

An APinvestigation referenced by the GAO found that schools, nursing homes, and hospitals were within the blast zones of more than 120 facilities which store ammonium nitrate. The investigation also found that other facilities that store the chemical are unaccounted for due to poor information sharing. The GAO blames the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the EPA for outdated chemical safety regulations that have failed to cover ammonium nitrate. OSHA rarely inspects facilities that store ammonium nitrate because the agency relies on EPA regulations that do not list ammonium nitrate as a hazardous chemical. In the 1970’s, OSHA issued some requirements for storing ammonium nitrate, but the agency did not effectively publicize them to the fertilizer industry. The industry viewed the rules as only applying if ammonium nitrate was used to make explosives.

The EPA, OSHA, and DHS agrees with the GAO findings and note that new efforts will be made to improve coordination with states, though states are not required to report their data to federal agencies. OSHA is now evaluating new methods to target high-risk facilities for inspection. “We believe that we have already made significant improvements to reduce the likelihood of ammonium nitrate incidents,’’ wrote David Michaels, an assistant Labor Department secretary for occupational safety and health.

The GAO report noted U.S. safety standards on chemical facilities are weaker compared to those in Canada, France, Germany, and Britain. The office recommends that Congress should eliminate an annual budget provision which exempts from safety inspections facilities with fewer than ten employees, which make up about 4 percent of the 1,345 facilities recorded in the DHS database.

Senior members of relevant congressional committees on labor, environment, and the budget, Representatives George Miller (D-California), and Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut); along with Senators Barbara Boxer (D-California), Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania), and Patty Murray (D-Washington) signed a letter urging President Obama to act on the GAO report. “Almost every state has communities that are at risk of experiencing a similar disaster,’’ the lawmakers said. “Last year’s devastating ammonium nitrate fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, is a tragic example of what can happen when there are inadequate protections.”