Patience wearing thin on chemical safety push

The head of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works leveled sharp criticism Thursday against a federal working group tasked with tackling what one expert described as a “chemical safety crisis” facing the United States.

Almost a year has passed since a deadly fertilizer plant explosion in Texas prompted President Obama to direct agencies to revisit regulations for the nation’s chemical plants.

In the 11 months since the West, Texas, blast there have been additional chemical disasters, including the recent spill in West Virginia. But there has been no final report from the Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group, whose work has been fraught with delay. 

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“I’m looking for action here, not a lot of words,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the panel’s chairman, said during a hearing. “And so far, I’ve seen a lot of words.”

Under a grilling from Boxer and other Democrats on the committee, Environmental Protection Agency Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus said the working group expects to send a report to Obama by the end of May.

He said the groups had issued new guidance and chemical safety advisories to industry groups, outlining best practices for the handling and storage of chemicals including ammonium nitrate, the substance linked to the West explosion.

However, Boxer chided the EPA for not doing more through existing authority to increase federal oversight of chemical plants. She urged the government, for instance, to add ammonium nitrate to its risk management program.

Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, also called for action, saying urgency is required in light of a series of disasters in recent years.

”The U.S. is facing an industrial chemical safety crisis,” Moure-Eraso said.

Republicans on the committee and industry witnesses countered that the solution is greater adherence to rules already on the books, rather than an entirely new slate of mandates.

“I believe there is no need for EPA to impose additional regulations on top of regulations that already exist, but are not being enforced,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said.

Obama ordered the government-wide of chemical safety review last August, in response to the West explosion, which killed 15 people.

An executive order issued by Obama established the working group, which is jointly chaired by the EPA administrator and the secretaries of Homeland Security and Labor. The order gave the agencies 90 days — until early November — to identify measures to improve plant safety.

Specifically, the order tasks agencies to improve cooperation with state and local regulators and take steps to enhance cooperation between federal offices charged with overseeing chemical and safety issues. 

The order calls for modernized regulations and new standards for the storage and security of dangerous substances.

The effort, however, has seen repeated delays, largely stemming from last year’s government shutdown.

On Thursday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced it was extending the public comment period on draft regulations being developed as part of the effort.

Boxer said the latest hearing on the issue was meant to make clear to the agencies that the are expected to move more quickly.

"Delay is unacceptable,” she said. “Federal agencies and industry must act quickly to adopt safety measures that can save lives before another tragedy happens.”