Federal investigation reveals little oversight of U.S. chemical plants
Valley Mills Fire Department personnel walk among the remains of an apartment complex next to the fertilizer plant that exploded yesterday afternoon on April 18, 2013 in West, Texas. A federal probe has found gaps in chemical safety regulations at several plants and other locations across the U.S. Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images
The report found regulatory gaps in environmental and worker protections and urged broad changes to U.S. safety rules. President Barack Obama pledged to stiffen enforcement following the explosion on April 17, 2013, in West, Texas.
Without improved monitoring, federal regulators “will not know the extent to which dangerous conditions at some facilities may continue to exist,” concluded the report by the Government Accountability Office.
The GAO found that the Homeland Security Department’s database captured only a fraction of the ammonium nitrate storage facilities in the U.S. The federal database shows that 1,345 facilities in 47 states store ammonium nitrate. But spot checks of similar state records found that the federal list missed as many as two-thirds of the storage sites, said the report, which faulted companies’ noncompliance, legal loopholes or poor federal coordination with states.
About half of the facilities that are in the federal database were located in six states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas. They include chemical plants or any location that stores ammonium nitrate, a widely used fertilizer, such as farm supply retailers or fertilizer distribution warehouses.
The government audit tracked a monthlong reporting effort last year by the AP that drew upon public records in 28 states. The AP investigation found that schools, nursing homes and hospitals were within the potentially devastating blast zones of more than 120 facilities storing ammonium nitrate. In addition, the investigation concluded that the existence of other facilities nationwide remained a mystery due to poor information sharing.
The GAO faulted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency for decades-old chemical safety regulations that have failed in large part to cover ammonium nitrate.
Facilities that store ammonium nitrate are rarely inspected by OSHA, including the one that blew up in Texas, in part because the agency relies on EPA regulations that do not list ammonium nitrate as a hazardous material. OSHA had put in place some requirements for storing the fertilizer back in the 1970s, but prior to the Texas explosion the agency did not widely publicize them to the fertilizer industry. GAO found the industry often viewed the rules as applying only if the material were used to make explosives.
The audit said the agency may be unwisely granting exemptions to retailers that store and blend fertilizer for direct sale.
As a result, prior to last year’s explosion, OSHA had cited just one facility for violations of its ammonium nitrate storage requirements in its more than 40-year history, the report said. That was in 1997 in Florida, following an employee complaint.
The findings come as a federal working group established by Obama prepares to submit its report later this month that outlines ways to improve oversight.
The EPA, OSHA and the Homeland Security Department generally agreed with the findings. They emphasized that states are not required to report their data to federal agencies, and that new efforts to improve coordination will be spelled out in the coming task force report. OSHA officials also said they were reevaluating ways to target high-risk facilities for inspection, even with limited resources.
“We believe that we have already made significant improvements to reduce the likelihood of ammonium nitrate incidents,” wrote David Michaels, an assistant Labor Department secretary for occupational safety and health.
The GAO report noted that U.S. safety standards typically fell short compared to those in Canada, France, Germany and Britain, which in many cases bar the use of wood or other combustible material in ammonium storage facilities. GAO also urged Congress to eliminate an annual budget provision that exempts from safety inspections facilities with 10 or fewer employees, which make up about four percent of the 1,345 locations.
A group of Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday called the U.S. safety lapses “unacceptable” and in a letter urged Obama to take action to address GAO’s findings. Signing the letter were chairs or senior members of the relevant congressional committees on labor, environment, or the budget: Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.; Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn.; Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.; and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
“Almost every state has communities that are at risk of experiencing a similar disaster,” the lawmakers said. “Last year’s devastating ammonium nitrate fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, is a tragic example of what can happen when there are inadequate protections.”
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