INSIGHT: A broad new US regulatory initiative

12 July 2007 16:05  [Source: ICIS news]

US safety panel wants tight grip on process industriesBy Joe Kamalick

 

WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--US chemicals manufacturers may be facing a broad new regulatory initiative, one that could give federal and even local governments wide authority over their production processes in an effort to ensure greater safety.

 

In testimony before a US Senate panel this week, Chemical Safety Board (CSB) chairwoman Carolyn Merritt charged that current US regulation of safety and security at chemical plants and refineries is inadequate and needs a major overhaul.

 

She said the two principal US regulatory agencies that are supposed to be monitoring and enforcing process industry safety - the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) - have basically been absent without leave.

 

In relating lessons learned from the March 2005 explosion and fire at the BP Texas City, Texas, refinery that killed 15 workers and injured 180 others, Merritt essentially said the accident might have been avoided and those lives saved if EPA and OSHA had been doing their jobs.

 

While she laid most of the blame for the Texas City tragedy at BP’s feet, Merritt also had some stinging criticism for federal regulators.

 

“Thorough implementation of existing OSHA and EPA process safety rules would prevent a number of tragic accidents, including the one in Texas City,” she told the Senate subcommittee responsible for infrastructure security.

 

“Like other refineries, the Texas City facility was covered under both the OSHA process safety management (PSM) standard and the EPA risk management programme (RMP) rule,” she said. 

 

In addition to documented operating procedures and professional worker training, she said “both systems require facilities to follow certain good safety management practices - such as performing hazard analyses, management of change reviews, incident investigations and preventive maintenance”.

 

“Our investigation found numerous requirements of the OSHA and EPA standards were not followed in Texas City,” she said.  “For example, a relief valve study that was required under the regulations was 12 years overdue on the day of the explosion.”

 

“Incidents that should have served as serious warnings were not properly investigated nor were the underlying causes identified and corrected.

 

“We found, however, that OSHA does few planned, comprehensive inspections of chemical plants and oil refineries to assure compliance with its own rules,” she said.

 

She charged that in the 10 years from 1995 to 2005, OSHA conducted only nine comprehensive inspections, none of which included refineries.

 

Neither did Merritt spare EPA.

 

Although the BP refinery at Texas City was subject to “a full suite of process safety requirements under EPA’s independent regulatory authority… EPA records we received show that the BP Texas City refinery never received an RMP audit prior to the accident”.

 

She also said that EPA process safety enforcement relies almost wholly on reviews of written company submissions rather than detailed field inspections.

 

Merritt complained to the Senate that EPA and OSHA largely ignored her board’s requests for information on the two agencies’ inspections and enforcement performance.

 

Saying the Texas City tragedy was only the most notable of several serious chemical accidents in recent years, Merritt warned that these often fatal incidents provide “an unfortunate glimpse of what lies ahead in case of a terrorist attack against a US chemical site”.

 

“Both the EPA and OSHA process safety regulatory programmes are limited in various ways,” Merritt said, saying that was “an issue which I believe ultimately will fall to Congress to address.” 

 

She cited a 2002 finding by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that EPA and OSHA have only a few safety inspectors to cope with the number of high hazard chemical facilities - some 15,000 - that are covered under their regulations.

 

She urged Congress to widen authority and fund broad expansion of inspection staff at both agencies.

 

Most significantly, however, Merritt said refining and chemical process safety and security in the US need an entirely new approach.

 

Under current law, she said, both EPA and OSHA process safety enforcement programmes are fundamentally flawed because they “focus on specific, relatively narrow lists of covered hazardous chemicals, each with a threshold quantity”.

 

This narrow approach, she said, means that unstable or reactive combinations of chemicals are not systematically covered. In addition, facilities that use hazardous chemicals but do not meet quantity thresholds are exempt from regulation.

 

“Certainly, a high fraction of the accidents we investigate occur among those facilities that are not covered under either programme - even though those facilities still have serious chemical hazards,” she said.

 

To remedy these oversights, Merritt urged Congress to consider a broader regulatory approach called a “safety case”. 

 

Under this methodology, she explained, “chemical facilities must receive permission to operate in advance, based on a demonstration of safety competence to government authorities”.

 

“While such systems may require more effort to implement, they have the advantage of being preventive in nature and less tied to specific quantity thresholds and chemical lists,” she said.

 

Merritt did not indicate in her testimony whether the authority for granting plants operating permission should fall to federal or state officials, but she said “it would be unrealistic to think that chemical plant safety can be assured without a significant investment in a highly trained and specialised inspection corps”.

 

The Chemical Safety Board is not a regulatory agency, so it cannot impose any requirements on industry. Nor does Merritt’s broad appeal to Congress for vastly more federal regulatory control of the process industry necessarily mean that Congress will act.

 

However, Merritt’s recommendations give further support, authority and ammunition to many in Congress who have long wanted to apply precautionary principles to authorisation of chemical products in the US. 

 

Separately, her strong suggestion for pre-operational government authority over chemical and refining process safety would give regulators power to impose inherently safer technology on producers and thus satisfy another long-sought goal of many in Congress.

 


By: Joe Kamalick
+1 713 525 2653



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