Senators Press EPA about Safety Measures at Chemical Plants

In a rare display of bipartisanship, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and David Vitter (R-LA) sharply questioned staff from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in yesterday's Senate hearing on oversight of federal risk management and emergency planning programs that are designed to prevent incidents at hazardous chemical plants.

The hearing focused on two specific chemical facility explosions that occurred within the past two months – one at a fertilizer company in West, TX, in April, which killed 14 people and injured over 200, and the other at the Williams Olefins plant in Geismar, LA, in early June, which killed two and injured more than 100. Investigations into the causes of both are underway.

At the heart of the hearing was criticism of the "patchwork" of federal, state, and local regulations that leave gaps in oversight. A large part of the questioning centered on why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) failed to update a 16-year-old safety alert on ammonium nitrate and chose not to adopt a 2002 recommendation from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) to require disclosure and risk management plans for facilities that store reactive chemicals, including ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate was the source of the West, TX, explosion; lax rules allowed the West Fertilizer Company to store the substance in wooden buildings that contained no fire sprinklers.

EPA staff reported that the agency is studying several policy options to strengthen chemical oversight rules, including adopting CSB's 2002 recommendations, but both Boxer and Vitter directed the agency to act more quickly and aggressively to protect residents working and living near chemical facilities. Both senators asked EPA to adopt stricter safety precautions for storing chemicals.

Boxer also urged the EPA to use its existing authority under the Clean Air Act's General Duty Clause to require chemical facilities to use safer alternatives to reduce or eliminate the threats that these facilities pose to communities. Both Boxer and Paul Orum, a consultant for the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, referenced a petition that more than 50 organizations, including the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch), sent to the agency last July to enforce this clause. Orum testified that "more than 554 drinking water and wastewater facilities" have already converted from using toxic chemicals to safer alternatives to reduce danger to more than 40 million Americans.

"While the changes proposed here will not bring Kevin back to us, they will help ensure that other families in our country do not experience this type of tragedy again," said Timothy White, brother-in-law of first responder Kevin Sanders, who was killed in the Texas explosion. The government has a duty to protect first responders, workers, and communities from the catastrophic risks posed by dangerous chemicals. We hope the hearing will spur EPA to action.

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