Boxer calls on states, EPA to strengthen safety regs after Texas factory blast

The chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee called Tuesday upon the nation’s governors and the Obama administration to enact new safeguards in response to April's deadly fertilizer explosion in West, Texas.


Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) sent a letter to the governors of all 50 states, imploring them to take a fresh look at their policies for the handling of ammonium nitrate, the volatile chemical blamed for the blast that killed 15 people and injured hundreds.
 

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“I urge you to review the applicable requirements in your state, and in the interests of saving lives, adopt policies that you believe will prevent loss of life while allowing the use of ammonium nitrate with appropriate protections or the use of alternatives,” Boxer wrote.

Boxer conceded that many governors have resisted additional rules but said she hoped the tragedy in Texas would change minds.

“They’re always saying they don’t want federal regulations,” Boxer said. “But here they now know what can happen.”

In the days after the blast, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said greater state oversight would not have prevented the explosion.

Perry, a vocal critic of government regulations who has trumpeted his state’s business-friendly climate, told The Associate Press that Texans, “through their elected officials, clearly send the message of their comfort with the amount of oversight."

Perry’s staff could not be reached Tuesday for comment on Boxer’s remarks.

Boxer called upon the Environmental Protection Agency to update its 16-year-old guidance for the storage and handling of ammonium nitrate, which can explode when it is heated or contaminated. 

The agency should also consider changing its regulations for the risk management plans chemical companies have to develop and follow, she said.



“For some reason, EPA did not address the issue of ammonium nitrate,” Boxer told reporters, arguing that the requirements should be broadened to include mandates that the chemical be stored under safe conditions.

The EPA said Tuesday that it was "actively examining its legal authorities" to enact more stringent safety policies at chemical plants. 

Consideration of whether to update the 1997 guidance is part of that review, the agency said in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon: "EPA intends to work closely with Senator Boxer as well as state and local authorities in order to seek stronger protections to safeguard public health."

Boxer also called on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to increase inspections of chemical plants. Though she said the agency is underfunded, she said its inspection policies were “inexcusable.”

OSHA had not inspected West Fertilizer Co. plant in nearly three decades.

“The federal government should be doing more,” said Boxer, who vowed to hold a second hearing on the issue in September or October.

During the committee’s first hearing late last month, U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso testified that an investigation into the explosion revealed significant gaps in the regulation of ammonia.
 
“The CSB has determined that ammonium nitrate fertilizer storage falls under a patchwork of U.S. safety standards and guidance, a patchwork that has many large holes,” Moure-Eraso told lawmakers.

He faulted current regulations for allowing the chemical to be stored in wooden buildings and storage bins, where sprinkler systems are generally not allowed. He said there are no federal, state or local rules that restrict the storage of large amounts of ammonium nitrate near homes, schools or hospitals.

The Chemical Safety Board recommended the Environmental Protection Agency beef up its regulations of the chemicals in 2002, but the agency has yet to take action.

The April 17 blast obliterated an entire section of West, destroying homes, businesses and three schools.

In the days after the Texas explosion, fertilizer industry officials warned that the tragedy would lead to a regulatory overreaction.

On Tuesday, Ford West, president of the Fertilizer Institute, said the industry is working aggressively to ensure companies are in compliance with those rules and regulations already on the books.

“If her [Boxer’s] letter brings more attention to the need for compliance with current regulations, we’re all for it,” he said.

Boxer said she is intent on pursuing increased protections, with or without cooperation from the states.

“I don’t intend to stop after one hearing,” she said. “We have the information, information is power and the people with power have to do something.” 

— This story was first posted at 12:08 p.m. and has been updated.

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