I was surprised – but not shocked – to learn that the government has no way of fully knowing which U.S. chemical facilities stock ammonium nitrate, the substance that exploded April 17, 2013, at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant and killed 14 people. President Barack Obama pledged to stiffen enforcement following the explosion. Outdated federal policies, poor information sharing with states and a raft of industry exemptions point to scant federal oversight, says a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report obtained by The Associated Press (AP).
The GAO report found regulatory gaps in environmental and worker protections and urged broad changes to U.S. safety rules. Without improved monitoring, federal regulators “will not know the extent to which dangerous conditions at some facilities may continue to exist,” concluded the report.
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, according to the report. GAO 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.
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.
The GAO faulted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 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 put in place some requirements for storing the fertilizer back in the 1970s, but 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 EPA, OSHA and the Homeland Security Department generally agreed with the findings. They emphasized new efforts to improve coordination will be spelled out in a report expected later this month from the federal working group task force established by Obama that will outline ways to improve oversight. 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.
A group of lawmakers called the U.S. safety lapses “unacceptable.” They urged President Obama in a letter 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 including: Rep. George Miller; Sen. Barbara Boxer; Rep. Joe Courtney; Sen. Bob Casey and Sen. Patty Murray. The lawmakers said in their letter:
Almost every state has communities that are at risk of experiencing a similar disaster. Last year’s devastating ammonium nitrate fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, is a tragic example of what can happen when there are inadequate protections.
This is an issue that must be addressed in Washington and further delay is unacceptable. It’s an area, like many others, where Congress all too often allows the “tail to wag the dog,” and that must change!
Source: Claims Journal
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