In the aftermath of the fertilizer plant explosion that leveled the town of West, TX, four months ago, President Obama ordered federal agencies to review safety rules at chemical facilities nationwide.
“Chemicals, and the facilities where they are manufactured, stored, distributed, and used, are essential to today’s economy,” Obama wrote in an executive order. “Past and recent tragedies have reminded us, however, that the handling and storage of chemicals are not without risk.”
The executive order also calls for better coordination among federal, state and local agencies in the regulation of chemical plants.
“The federal government has developed and implemented numerous programs aimed at reducing the safety risks and security risks associated with hazardous chemicals,” Obama said.
“However, additional measures can be taken by executive departments and agencies with regulatory authority to further improve chemical facility safety and security in coordination with owners and operators.”
The West fertilizer plant exploded in April killing 14 and leveling nearby homes and businesses.
The plant had not undergone an inspection by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) since 1985. Its owners did not tell the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) they were storing large quantities of the explosive fertilizer, as regulations require. And the most recent partial safety inspection of the facility in 2011 led to $5,250 in fines.
Around 7:30 p.m. on April 17, a fire broke out at the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company plant in West, a town of 2,800 people 75 miles south of Dallas. Twenty minutes later, there was a huge explosion, which shook houses 50 miles away and was so powerful that the United States Geological Survey registered it as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake. It flattened homes within a five-block radius and destroyed a nursing home, an apartment complex, and a nearby middle school. The blast left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep, and the fire “burned with such intensity that railroad tracks were fused,” officials said at the time.
A reliance on industry to provide information about facilities that handle dangerous chemicals might have contributed to the DHS’ failure to regulate the site of a major explosion in Texas this past spring, an official said.
“It is absolutely a shared responsibility,” David Wulf, director of the department’s infrastructure security compliance division. “Facilities that are in the business of dealing with … high-risk chemicals … have an obligation to do that reporting, just as I have an obligation to file our taxes with the IRS.
“The IRS doesn’t necessarily come out and look for us,” he added. “At the same time, we’re committed to doing all we can to get word out” that these reporting requirements exist, he said.
During a chemical-sector security conference, Wulf said DHS officials have “a pretty high degree of certainty that we have reached facilities that are members of the national trade associations” and informed them of their responsibility to comply with federal Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards, which require companies to submit site security plans if they handle a significant amount of dangerous chemicals.
He said, however, it appears the fertilizer plant was not a member of such a trade group.