US safety chief urges wider EPA role in chemical site safety

06 March 2014 18:19 Source:ICIS News

US safety chief urges wider EPA role in chemical site safetyWASHINGTON (ICIS)--A top federal safety official on Thursday called for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enforce inherently safer technology (IST) at US chemical facilities and refineries, saying the nation is “facing an industrial chemical safety crisis”.

Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the federal Chemical Safety Board (CSB), told a Senate hearing that until Congress can craft comprehensive regulatory reform for federal management of chemicals in commerce, “I advocate that the EPA step in and use its authority under the Clear Air Act’s [CAA] general duty clause to encourage chemical facilities to take steps to make their operations inherently safer”.

Under the CAA’s general duty clause, the EPA can and often does impose fines on plant operators for conditions that EPA inspectors regard as hazardous, even if those circumstances are not in violation of any specific regulation under the act.

The EPA’s broad use of the general duty clause has been challenged by a wide coalition of chemicals producers and other manufacturers.

In his testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Moure-Eraso said that the EPA “has the authority to act now, on its own, to require inherently safer design, equipment and processes which would significantly aid in preventing more catastrophes”.

The hearing was called to review what progress has been made by a White House task force on federal chemical safety and security programmes and how to improve those policies. 

The task force involves multiple federal agencies and was established in August last year by President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13650, issued in the wake of the April 2013 explosion and fire at the West Fertilizer facility in West, Texas that killed 15 people and injured some 200 others.

Citing that tragedy and a string of other recent chemical or refinery accidents, Moure-Eraso said that the EPA should step in to regulate safety and security at plant sites, saying that the Clean Air Act “assigns owners and operators of these facilities a general duty to identify hazards, design and maintain safe facilities and minimise the consequences of leaks”.

Most importantly, he added, “EPA should follow up by adopting specific regulations to meet those goals so that there are clear requirements on the books”.

Security at US chemical plants is already governed under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS), enforced by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Also at the hearing, EPA assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus said that the agency has identified approximately 13,000 chemical facilities across the country that are currently covered by the agency’s risk management plan (RMP) requirement, and that nearly 2,000 of those sites are considered “high-risk”.

Stanislaus, who is responsible for EPA’s emergency response office, said that the agency is seeking public comment on how to improve the RMP programme “and further reduce the number of chemical accidents within the US”.

Among the options Stanislaus said the EPA is considering are expanding the list of substances regulated under RMP and “identifying ways to use safer alternatives as mechanisms to reduce chemical risk”.

The US chemicals industry and other business sectors have long opposed any federal mandate for use of IST as a security tool.

Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat-California), chairwoman of the committee, endorsed the proposal for the EPA taking a role in enforcing safety and security at chemical plants.

“The good news is that under existing law, EPA has the authority to begin to strengthen safety at facilities that handle dangerous chemicals,” she said in an opening statement at the hearing.

The committee is not expected at this point to put forward any specific legislation aimed at improving plant site safety but was called chiefly to review progress of the White House task force.

Paul Hodges studies key influences shaping the chemical industry in Chemicals and the Economy

By Joe Kamalick