Committee hears chemical facility safety testimony

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Work by the multiagency working group set up by President Obama to deliver a report to the White House on how to improve safety at chemical manufacturing and storage facilities isn’t moving ahead fast enough to make Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) happy. She is chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

A hearing on “Preventing Potential Chemical Threats and Improving Safety: Oversight of the President’s Executive Order on Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security” was held March 6 in front of Boxer’s committee. Key presenters and those questioned by the committee included Billy Pirkle, senior director of environment, health and safety for Crop Production Services; Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response at the Environmental Protection Agency; and Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the United States Chemical Safety Board.

The executive order from the President for a multiagency report came after the fire and explosion in West, Texas, where ammonium nitrate was determined to be the fuel for the explosion, but oversight of chemical facilities became even more complicated when there was a January spill of the coal-scrubbing chemical, MCHM, into a West Virginia river.

The report from the multiagency group to the President is on a schedule to be delivered by the end of May, according to members of the working group.

Jason Plautz, writing for Greenwire, the energy and environmental news service, wrote that Boxer was “dismayed” about slow progress and specifically “that the agency has not taken a step to add ammonium nitrate as an explosive chemical under the agency’s (EPA’s) risk management program, which would require companies to submit a response plan to the agency.”

Moure-Eraso reportedly suggested that the EPA may be understaffed to cover all the industry sites that need to be reviewed, inspected or whatever under new regulations that might be placed under oversight requirements, especially if ammonium nitrate is added as an explosive chemical.

Pirkle, who is a past  chairman of the Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA), represented The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) in testimony, to introduce the committee to the ResponsibleAg proposal worked out by TFI and ARA. Greenwire did not provide specifics about the ResponsibleAg program that has been communicated to members of TFI and ARA. The program was only described as an agriculture industry announced plan “for a voluntary information-sharing system and an industry-led group that would help compliance with federal and state regulations.” The reporter further said the ResponsibleAg group “would communicate information to retailers and other industry partners as well as engage federal and state regulators.”

It isn’t clear whether the agricultural side of regulatory change can be separated from the non-ag chemical side of changes in regulatory oversight. The chemical spill seems to have complicated all the issues.

Not clear to those outside the regulatory circle in Washington, D.C., is a reference to the use of the “general duty clause” being advocated by Boxer. In simple terms, engaging the general duty clause seems logical until the details are pulled to light because many describe the general duty clause as simply requiring chemical facilities to “take steps to prevent a catastrophic release.” The ag industry has indicated it doesn’t want EPA to engage this clause because it is much more complicated than being suggested, and the EPA has not embraced proceeding down that road.

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D.-W.Va.) and Boxer after the January spill introduced a bill that would increase safety regulations and inspection requirements for above-ground chemical storage tanks.

A senator who spoke with a voice of reason at the hearing was Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) who suggested that enforcing laws already on the books would seem more important than writing a bunch of new regulations.

Greenwire quoted him as saying, “If we make a mistake and over-regulate a needed chemical without the facts … the result is lost jobs for already struggling communities.”

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