Various agencies have been criticized for slow action and for failures in communicating the need for imposing stricter rules when overseeing facilities that produce or store potentially dangerous chemicals.
The explosion at the Adair Grain Inc. fertilizer plant in Texas, which killed 14 and injured 200 people, has exposed serious lapses in federal agencies' oversight. In the run-up to the deadly blast, various agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, were criticized for slow action and for failures in communicating the need for imposing stricter rules when overseeing facilities that produce or store potentially dangerous chemicals, Bloomberg reported.
While investigators are still trying to establish what caused the explosion, which took the lives of ten firefighters and emergency personnel, calls for a review of safety practices are becoming hard to ignore. Representative Paul Tonko of New York, top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce's subcommittee on environment and economy, wrote in an email to Bloomberg that the state and federal government should have taken precautionary measures to prevent accidents of such magnitude long ago.
Federal watchdogs have reported on a number of agency failings. For instance, the Department of Homeland Security, which has the responsibility to protect chemical plants from terrorist attacks, might need more than seven years to review the security plans of 3,120 facilities. In addition, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspectors of chemical facilities were found to lack proper training, while the Chemical Safety Board failed to make facilities implement many safety recommendations, with 25 percent taking five years ago or even longer.
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Data from a report by the Congressional Research Service released in November found that there were 90 facilities in the United States that could potentially threaten the lives of at least one million people in the worst-case scenario, including chemical factories, refineries, water treatment plants and fertilizer depots. A further 400 facilities could pose risks to more than 100,000 people, the report revealed. Estimates were made based on facility owners' evaluations of how close the facilities were located from population centers and how many people would be affected by an explosion or a leak that is required to be reported to the EPA.
Meanwhile, the investigation of the explosion in West, Texas, revealed that the facility had been approved to store a maximum of 270 tons of ammonium nitrate but the company did not provide any record of the actual amount of the chemical it stored to any agency, Bloomberg said. The scene of the accident is currently being looked into by 70 investigators from various state and federal agencies. At least 60 witnesses have been interviewed so far, the news source noted.
Scott Jensen, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, an industry group which represents manufacturers of chemicals, stated that further action in terms of oversight and regulation would depend on what the investigation finds. It is important that the right conclusions are drawn, so that the most adequate responses are given and the most effective measures are taken, he explained. Before talking about changes, we need to make sure that the legislation we have in place in properly implemented, he said.