Obama orders review of US chemical plants

President Obama is directing federal agencies to probe safety rules at the nation’s chemical plant as part of an initiative intended to avert a repeat of April’s deadly blast at a Texas fertilizer plant. 

Obama signed an executive order Thursday morning requiring agencies to take several steps to improve safety at plants that store dangerous chemicals, including ammonium nitrate, the substance blamed for the West, Texas, explosion.

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“Chemicals and the facilities that manufacture, store, distribute and use them are essential to our economy,” a White House document describing the order reads. “However, incidents such as the devastating explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas in April are tragic reminders that the handling and storage of chemicals present serious risks that must be addressed.”

The cause of the blast, which killed 15 people, remains under investigation.

In the meantime, the president is instructing federal agencies to develop a plan within 90 days to identify measures to improve plant safety.

The directive creates a new Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group comprosed by top-level officials from a variety of federal agencies. The panel is jointly chaired by the secretaries of Homeleand Security and Labor, along with the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and is tasked with overseeing and coordinating the government-wide effort.

The group is required to provide an update on efforts to increase safety through an array of mandates laid our in the order.

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. 

Industry groups are likely to balk at any additional regulations.

During a hearing unrelated to the order Thursday, Timothy J. Scott, chief security office at Dow, told members of a House subcommittee Thursday that safety is a top priority fro the chemical industry. But he stressed the need to ensure rules already on the books.

 “We need to make sure that current regulations are being implemented fully and properly and that agencies are properly equipped to train their staff, educate the regulated community, and enforce existing standards,” Scott said, according to prepared testimony.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), meanwhile, hailed the order. Boxer, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the directive’s provisions mirror the conclusions reached by the panel following a recent hearing on the Texas explosion.

Boxer said she conveyed those findings to Obama.

“As I told the President, the EPA has not updated its alert since 1997, and the best practices recommended by other federal agencies such as OSHA are not being uniformly followed," she said.

This story was published at 9:04 a.m. and updated with additional information at 12:45.