Why Obama’s Chemical Plant Safety Laws Are Failing

Despite an executive mandate and increasing pressure to safeguard the public from a chemical disaster, President Obama’s term could soon end without widespread improvements in chemical plant safety.

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Despite an executive mandate and increasing pressure to safeguard the public from a chemical disaster, President Obama’s term could soon end without widespread improvements in chemical plant safety.

The risks Obama has attempted to address with multiple regulatory maneuvers keep hanging around: many local response teams still ill-equipped to handle chemical emergencies, plants haven’t updated safety equipment, residents don’t know about nearby chemical hazards and many plants are still vulnerable to an outside attack.

In 2013, Obama’s Executive Order 13650 sought to toughen safety measures by addressing five elements:

  • Strengthening community planning and preparedness;
  • Enhancing Federal operational coordination;
  • Improving data management;
  • Modernizing policies and regulations; and
  • Incorporating stakeholder feedback and developing best practices.

Yet, a series of reports have exposed ongoing failures in the country’s chemical infrastructure.

Problems in Texas

Recently the Houston Chronicle produced a six-part investigative series that revealed how a dysfunctional patchwork of regulations has kept the public vulnerable to chemical threats.

The Chronicle called Obama’s plan a “failure” for relying on the public’s right to know, which is being undermined by sweeping anti-terrorism laws. And because the laws are often leaving accountability to the public, which is left in the dark, critical improvements are slow-going or nonexistent.

Among the Chronicle’s laundry list of complaints in Houston’s chemical infrastructure was the lack of chemical plant inspections, poor preparation among local emergency response teams, and the complete lack of regulations for some areas of chemical safety such as inadvertent chemical reactions. The Chronicle recently found complaints from companies in New Jersey that echoed those in Texas.

A Final EPA Rule Under Obama

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is hoping to issue its last chemical plant safety rule under Obama’s administration in January.

That rule, under the EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP), will require companies to analyze the root cause of accidents, but it won’t require that they do anything to prevent them. It also requires that companies perform safety drills, conduct third-party audits and improve emergency response to accidents.

But big loopholes remain. In particular, hundreds of dangerous chemicals are not covered by RMP rules, including ammonium nitrate — the chemical that was responsible for the West, Texas explosion that killed 15 people, injured 160 and flattened much of the nearby town.

The rule is already facing scrutiny on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is pushing the EPA to do more to require that companies make improvements, instead of just suggesting they do.  

The Terrorism Factor

The Chemical Safety Board concluded earlier this year that the West, Texas blast was caused by a fire that was set intentionally — an alarming fact when considering the harm that could be done by intentional releases at major chemical plants.

Many plants have tight security and the most up-to-date safety technology. But without mandating those updates, other companies are just treading water.

Recently, Christine Todd Whitman, the EPA Administrator from 2001-2003, also wrote that as the Obama administration considers its final rule by the EPA, it should make sure the regulations have teeth.

“In particular, a wider range of chemical facilities, such as water treatment and chlorine plants, should be required to consider safer technologies and to submit promptly those analyses to the EPA. Most important, high-risk facilities should be required to actually move to safer technologies where economically and technologically feasible, and to do so on a reasonable schedule,” Whitman wrote in The Hill.

Without these stricter measures the Obama administration could miss a final, critical opportunity to make lasting and meaningful improvements in chemical safety.

What do you think? Have Obama’s regulations made chemical plants safer? Let us know your thoughts by commenting below.

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