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No More West, Texas: Obama Administration Begins Move on New Chemical Safety Rules

The Obama administration issued on Friday a new report outlining new chemical safety and security regulations and policies that—if enacted—could help protect the more than 130 million people who live nearby or work in the nearly 3,400 U.S. facilities that manufacture chemicals, refine petroleum, generate electric power and others that use or store hazardous chemicals.  

After last year’s massive explosion that killed 15 people and destroyed homes and businesses in a wide swath around a largely unregulated West, Texas, fertilizer plant, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to federal agencies to develop new rules to address the handling and storage of industrial chemicals, such as the ammonium nitrate fertilizer in the Texas explosion.


The Blue Green Alliance—a coalition of labor and environmental groups—said the report “contains all of the components to make American workers and communities safer and to reduce the potential for tragedies like West, Texas.”  But added:

Now we need the president to add a strong dose of urgency to match the size of the problem and to focus his administration’s efforts on a strong implementation plan.

Among the recommendations by the Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group, which includes the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, are:

  • Strengthening community planning and preparedness;
  • Enhancing federal operational coordination;
  • Improving data and management;
  • Modernizing regulations and policies; and
  • Incorporating stakeholder feed and best practices.

According to the workplace safety publication Occupational Health and Safety, more specific recommendations for regulatory improvements include:

establishing a cross-agency team of experts to standardize data and develop a common facility identifier; improving information tools for regulated chemicals; modernizing OSHA's PSM standard and EPA's RMP regulation; enhancing ammonium nitrate safety and security; promoting safer technology and alternatives; strengthening DHS' CFATS program; and working with Congress to increase OSHA’s monetary and criminal penalties...requiring stop work authority for employees who witness an activity that creates a threat of danger.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee who has called for stronger chemical safety rules, said:

To avoid another tragedy like the West, Texas, explosion, we must improve coordination between federal, state and local agencies, enhance information sharing and modernize safeguards at chemical facilities. This report is an important step in the process of ensuring that the nation's chemical facilities are safer and more secure

But as David Halperin writes in the Republic Report, any new chemical safety regulations will be met with fierce opposition from the industry as they have in the past.

Lobbyists for the chemical industry, backed by campaign contributions to politicians, have prevented such reforms; the Koch brothers, heavily invested in this industry, have led the resistance.

The Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, which represents more than 100 environmental justice, labor, public health, national security and environmental organizations, said in a statement:

The special interests that have blocked chemical facility disaster prevention policies for the last 30 years have had their way long enough. It is time for the president and federal agencies to move forward with strong and enforceable safeguards that prioritize the safety of the workers and communities most at risk.

Read the full report here.

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