Progress cited in chemical safety push

Agencies tasked with updating the nation’s chemical regulations in response to this year’s deadly Texas fertilizer plant explosion have made progress toward shoring up gaps in safety and security, they contend in a belated report.

In the wake of the April blast, President Obama ordered a governmentwide review of chemical safety policies on the books and established a new Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group made up of top-level officials from several federal agencies.

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The panel has held four public meetings, begun collaborations with state, local and tribal emergency responders and launched a pilot program testing new ways to share information about the storage of dangerous chemicals, according to the report.

“The Working Group has taken important steps towards substantial improvements in practices, operations, protocols, and policies to improve chemical facility safety and security,” the agencies concluded. 

A draft plan laying out recommendations is expected to be complete in early 2014, according to the report.

Ultimately, the plan is likely to lead to tightened regulations for the sales, storage and handling of dangerous chemicals, including ammonium nitrate, the volatile substance blamed for the explosion in West, Texas.

Fifteen people were killed in the blast, which wiped out an entire section of the small town.

The agencies are considering beefing up various rules, as well as potential revisions to the Department of Homeland Security's “chemicals of interest” list.  The DHS is leading the interagency effort, which also includes the Environmental Protection Agency, and the departments of Labor, Justice, Agriculture and Transportation.

The taskforce has developed a “matrix of programs” that could be used to fill in the holes created by a patchwork of federal, state and local chemical safety and security policies. They include increased training for first responders, technical support to states and local governments and improved data sharing between the various levels of government.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is also working to update regulations to require people who store explosive material to notify local fire departments on an annual basis.

Meanwhile, the panel said it is monitoring a pilot chemical data-sharing program being tried in New York and New Jersey. If successful, the initiative could serve as a model for a national program.

The taskforce is considering ratcheting up enforcement of rules already on the books. 

“The Group also is assessing methods that Federal and State agencies can use to identify chemical facilities that have not met their regulatory obligation or are otherwise out of compliance with important safety and security requirements,” according to the report.

The safety push was sparked by an executive order issued by Obama on Aug. 1. The panel was initially given until Nov. 1 to identify measures to improve plant safety. 

But the effort was delayed this fall by the federal government shutdown. Though the shutdown lasted 16 days, the EPA said that was due to the stoppage, the task force planned on an update a month later, in early December.

The progress report was posted on Friday, roughly three weeks after that date.