Feds propose chemical safety overhaul

A federal taskforce on Friday proposed a sweeping plan to shore up safety at the nation’s chemical plants.

The Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group final report to President Obama comes in response to last year’s fertilizer plant explosion in Texas, which killed 15 people and injured hundreds more.

The 121-page plan calls for strengthened regulations at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as steps to protect chemical plants from the threat of a terrorist strike.

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The task force, crafted by Obama via executive order and led jointly by OSHA, the EPA and the Department of Homeland Security, also proposes an array of new restrictions on ammonia nitrate, the volatile chemical involved in the West, Texas, blast.

In total, the plan lays out 10 proposed regulatory and policy changes, including technical steps to strengthen OSHA’s process safety management regulations and the EPA’s risk management plan.

The panel also calls for measures requiring congressional action, including a proposed amendment to the federal Safe Explosives Act and stiffer criminal penalties and fines for companies that skirt OSHA rules.

The report follows extensive discussions between federal officials and industry groups, first responders, unions, plant workers environmental organizations and communities near chemical plants. All sides agreed in principal on the need for improved safety.

“There was, however, no consensus about the role of government in the implementation of safer alternatives,” according to the report.

Though that acknowledgement could signal a difficult road ahead for regulators charged with implementing the plan, the panel’s work, though fraught with delays, drew initial praise from many on both sides of the issue.

Bill Allmond, vice president at the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates, issued a statement saying the industry was encouraged to find several of its recommendations in the final report.

“In particular, we appreciate the Administration’s recognition of the need to maximize stakeholder input and strengthen communication between the federal government and state and local emergency planning committees,” he said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, hailed the report, saying the safety system now in place at chemical plants is overdue for an update.

“This report is an important step in the process of ensuring that the nation’s chemical facilities are safer and more secure,” the California Democrat said.

Boxer said she would convene a hearing on the report.

Still, proponents for stronger regulations contend the plan doesn’t go far enough. The Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters described many of the plan’s components as “voluntary half-measures” and demanded that the administration finalize a stronger set of mandatory regulations within the next 18 months.

“The special interests that have blocked chemical facility disaster prevention policies for the last 30 years have had their way long enough,” the group said. ”It is time for the President and federal agencies to move forward with strong and enforceable safeguards that prioritize the safety of the workers and communities most at risk.”