Obama Signs Order for Increased Safety and Oversight at Chemical Plants

A chemical trailer sits among the remains of the burning fertilizer plant in April.

Photo by REUTERS /MIKE STONE /LANDOV

A chemical trailer sits among the remains of the burning fertilizer plant in April.

A few months after a deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas, President Barack Obama signed an executive order today that aimed at increasing safety and oversight of chemical plants across the country. In a series of measures, various federal, state and local agencies would share more information and look for best practices to reduce risks from such facilities.

The explosion in April at the West Fertilizer plant took 15 lives and destroyed hundreds of homes and schools. While the origin of the fire that led to the explosion has still not been determined, investigators have said that it was ammonium nitrate stored at the plant that exploded. Among several issues believed to have been a factor in the fire and explosion are the facts that the facility had stored the chemical in wood buildings, and had no sprinklers.

Many of those killed in the explosion were first responders, who had rushed towards the plant to fight the fire after it ignited. Today’s executive order calls for improving coordination with local governments and first responders, and make sure they have “ready access to key information in a usable format” about chemical facilities.

The order also calls for government agencies to find chemical facilities that haven’t provided all the information they’re required to or are not following federal safety requirements.

“I think one of the problems we saw in West was that company misrepresented the amount of explosive material they had on site,” says Elena Craft with the Environmental Defense Fund. “So unless you actually have inspectors going out to these facilities, you wouldn’t necessarily recognize there’s a problem.”

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has called for federal and state agencies to do more to ensure safety at chemical facilities.

“I couldn’t be more gratified to learn today that [Obama] is taking executive action to follow through on the very solutions that were discussed and that I promised to pursue,” Boxer said in a statement today. Boxer noted that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hasn’t updated its alert (a fact sheet with recommendations on storage) for for ammonium nitrate since 1997, and that “best practices recommended by other federal agencies such as OSHA are not being uniformly followed.” The EPA is already reviewing that alert and may update it.

But it isn’t obvious yet where the money would come from for more inspections and more oversight, especially during a time of cuts to state and federal agencies, says Craft. “I think what’s not clear from the executive order is how any recommendations would be funded or implemented,” she says. “So what we might be doing is generating a lot of good ideas that don’t necessarily go anywhere.”

Some of the first improvements are due within 45 days. You can read the full executive order here.

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