Obama orders review of safety and security procedures at chemical plants

In response to the deadly explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant, President Obama on Thursday ordered a government review of safety and security procedures at U.S. chemical plants.

Led by the departments of Homeland Security and Labor, and the Environmental Protection Agency, the working group will try to improve coordination with state, local and tribal agencies, streamline information-sharing and update regulations.

The April blast in West, Tex., killed 15 people, many of them first responders, and injured about 200 people. The explosion, which occurred after a fire in an area that contained explosive ammonium nitrate, is still under investigation. But a report to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in May showed that the building had no “fire protection systems such as automatic sprinklers” and that U.S. fire codes do not clearly require sprinklers in such facilities.

The president’s executive order calls for the launch of a pilot program in the next 45 days to test ways to improve collaboration on chemical safety and security, share information and inspect plants. Within nine months, Obama wants “a unified federal approach for identifying and responding to risks in chemical facilities.”

Rick Hind, the spokesman for a group of more than 100 organizations that on Thursday called for new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to make chemical disaster prevention a priority, said the speed of the federal response is critical.

A section of the order tells federal agencies to develop new regulations in the next 90 days, he said. “By late October or early November, we should know whether EPA is preparing new regulations to prevent chemical disasters once and for all,” Hind said.

The groups cited EPA data that they said showed there are 470 U.S. chemical facilities that put at least 100,000 people at risk in the event of a poison gas release. According to the American Chemistry Council, there are 13,796 chemical facilities in the country. The Fertilizer Institute counts about 6,000 fertilizer distributors around the country like the one that exploded April 17.

In a statement, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said she told Obama that the EPA has not updated its rules for such materials since 1997 and suggested other measures after holding a hearing.

“I couldn’t be more gratified to learn today that he is taking executive action to follow through on the very solutions that were discussed and that I promised to pursue,” Boxer said.

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.
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