US lawmakers call for commission to review chemical facilities

02 May 2013 21:00  [Source: ICIS news]

HOUSTON (ICIS)--Two Democratic lawmakers on Thursday requested that President Barack Obama establish an expert commission on chemical facility security following the 17 April explosion of the West Fertilizer facility in Texas.

In a letter sent to the president, Representatives Henry Waxman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Bennie Thompson of the House Homeland Security Committee called on the federal government to conduct a thorough review of security risks at chemical plants, refineries and other facilities that are storing large amounts of chemicals.

“In particular we urge you to establish a blue ribbon commission of experts that can take a fresh look at this important issue and determine what should be done to secure these facilities,” stated the letter.

The lawmakers stressed to Obama that West Fertilizer had never submitted information regarding the risk associated with its chemical stockpile to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as mandated under the Chemical Facilities Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS).

Adopted in 2007 the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act was designed to thwart sabotage of fertilizer and chemicals facilities as well as to lay the basis for securing these materials and to prevent them from ending up the hands of criminals and terrorists.

In 2012 West Fertilizer filed a disclosure with the Texas Department of State Health, which declared that volatile chemicals, along with 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, were stored on the property.

According to federal regulations, there was 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate allowed on the site. Normally, that would have lead to an immediate safety review by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The company was required to tell DHS officials, as they are the ones who regulate ammonium nitrate. Fertilizer plants and distribution facilities must self report to the DHS when they hold 400lb (181kg) or more of the crop nutrient. Failure to report these volumes can lead to fines or orders to shut down from the DHS.

The lawmakers also told Obama that senior DHS staff have told them that even if the agency had reviewed the facility, no action would have been taken that could have prevented the explosion or reduced its effects.

“As ranking members of the committees with jurisdiction over the CFATS programme, we have watched the distressing lack of progress in securing these facilities since the programme was established nearly six years ago,” the letter stated. “The December 2011 audit found that DHS had failed to approve a single facility security plan, conduct any compliance inspections or train inspectors to conduct such inspections.”

“Unfortunately these circumstances converge to permit the continuation of an unacceptable risk to the people who live and work near similar facilities in communities across the nation.”

This is the second call this week for a federally led review of the explosion in West, Texas, as Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, chairperson of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said she intends on holding a hearing to determine what gaps exist in the enforcement of chemical regulations and safety laws.

Boxer sent letters to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) requesting more information regarding their roles in overseeing chemical safety at these facilities.

By: Mark Milam
+1 713 525 2653

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