Processing Magazine

California senator proposes stricter safety rules on chemical plants

July 12, 2013
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U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has called for state and federal agencies to review rules for handling the potentially explosive fertilizer ammonium nitrate, claiming that lax oversight may be a risk factor for possible future incidents similar to the one in West, Texas, earlier this year, Bloomberg Business Week reported.

Boxer, who is chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, stated that ensuring better protection should be a priority for states and for the federal government, and agencies should take responsibility to lower the risks stemming from inadequate storage of the chemical. In addition, Boxer, stated that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had already failed to protect the public from risks. She argued that the Chemical Safety Board had asked the EPA to add ammonium nitrate to a list of hazards that required a local emergency plan more than a decade ago. Meanwhile, the OSHA's last inspection of the West facility was in 1985, records showed.

The question of how facilities that store hazardous chemicals are regulated has been in the spotlight for months now. It was brought to the surface in April, when an explosion at the Adair Grain Inc. fertilizer facility in Texas killed 14 people and caused more than $100 million of damage by nearly obliterating the town of West. The plant was approved to store 270 tons of ammonium nitrate but the actual amount at the facility at the time of the explosion was not known. The investigation of the deadly blast exposed problems with lax oversight and failure to gather necessary data regarding dangerous chemicals and their storage.

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The committee, chaired by Boxer, will be holding a second hearing into the explosion in the fall and she claims that decisions must be made by then. Authorities should act quickly to ensure that no more U.S. citizens are put at risk, Boxer said at a news conference. Ammonium nitrate should be stored at a separate facility, which should be protected against fire to ensure that the public is safe, she explained.

Boxer continued, accusing the federal government of inadequate measures. In a letter published on Tuesday, she called for a full review of state workplace safety and environmental policies, while also insisting on adopting standards to cut risks where possible, but at the same time still allowing the use of ammonium nitrate with protective measures in place.

In a statement in response to Boxer's call, the EPA pledged to work closely with state and local authorities in attempt to provide better safeguards for the public. The agency said it would conduct a review on its alert on ammonium nitrate to check if updates for safe management and storage are needed. The EPA is committed to supporting local responders, taking part in further efforts by the federal government to design and implement additional safety measures and standardizing the best practices of the chemical industry, the statement said.