It's been a year since President Obama signed an executive order (#13650) directing federal agencies to modernize chemical plant safety and security policies. Since then federal agencies tasked with developing new requirements for all chemical facilities in the United States have moved painfully slow.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the agency with the most enforceable authority to act and is one of the three agencies established by the executive order to coordinate a process and present recommendations under the executive order to the White House.
On July 31st the EPA opened a 90 day comment period asking for public input on ways to improve the EPA's Risk Management Program (RMP) that currently oversees 12,700 facilities.
Prior to the introduction of this public comment period the Interagency Working Group in May released a report to the President, which listed 27 significant incidences that led to 75 deaths over the last five years. The fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, the fire at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California and at the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes, Washington are just a few of the disasters listed in the report that have occurred since 2009. What we have learned from the EPA's request for public comment is that inherently safer systems and technologies are being examined but after taking a closer look at the unnecessary risks that have occurred in the last five years we are beyond the point of assessing and should be at a place of implementing and updating outdated policies.
Since taking office the Obama administration has called for security requirements to use inherently safer systems for all chemical facilities. While in the Senate, President Obama and Vice President Biden were also strong supporters of requirements to adopt inherently safer systems and have testified detailing the unnecessary risks of doing nothing and continuing business as usual.
Yet we've seen time and time again the failure to implement inherently safer systems has led to ruptures, explosions and fires at facilities that have killed workers, emergency responders and expose communities living near these facilities to dangerous conditions. West, Texas and Richmond, California are not the first and will not be the last chemical disasters. These tragedies are the result of our government's failure to require the use of the safest available chemical processes available.
Photo: The remains of the April 17, 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in the town of West, near Waco, Texas. The deadly explosion ripped through the fertilizer plant late on Wednesday, injured more than 100 people and killed fourteen individuals. REUTERS/Mike Stone [Image licensed by Greenpeace for editorial web posting] On April 17, 2013 an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas underscored what can happen when something goes wrong at a high-risk chemical facility: the blast killed fourteen people, injured 200 and destroyed entire city blocks. The explosion damaged nearby buildings including two schools and a nursing home. The facility was less than a mile away from West High School. Texas has 101 chemical facilities that each put 100,000 or more people at risk living in a highly populated area. As of 2006, at least seven chemical facilities in Texas have converted to using safer cost effective chemical process. These plants have eliminated the risk of a chemical disaster to over 1.9 million people.
Photo: Residents look out at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, Calif., Aug. 6, 2012, after a flammable vapor ignited and caught fire. Approximately, 15,000 people sought medical treatment. Photo by Greg Kunit. Creative Commons license On August 06, 2012 a flammable vapor ignited and caught fire at the Chevron refinery. The incident shut down public transit lines from Richmond to Berkeley, stranding thousands and approximately 15,000 people sought medical treatment. Today, Chevron is looking into expanding its facilities—a move that has been confronted with community opposition. Two elementary schools are located within a mile radius of the Chevron Richmond Refinery, putting approximately 946 kids at risk. California has 58 chemical facilities that each put 100,000 or more people living in a densely populated area at risk. As of 2006, at least thirty chemical facilities in California have converted to using safer cost effective chemicals in their production processes. These plants have eliminated the risk of a chemical disaster to over 11.7 million people.
Photo: A U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigator works in the Hoeganaes facility in Gallatin, Tenn., Aug. 23, 2011. The iron powder manufacturer experienced three explosions within one year that took the lives of five workers. In 2011 the Hoeganaes facility—an iron powder manufacturer—experienced three explosions that killed five workers. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) reported that combustible metal dust caused the two explosions that occurred on January 31st and March 29th. On May 27th leaking hydrogen gas coupled with the iron dust triggered a fire at the facility that caused an explosion. Upon investigation the CSB found numerous violations at this facility, including excessive amounts of accumulated metal dust. Tennessee has eighteen chemical facilities that each put 100,000 or more people living in highly populated areas at risk. As of 2006, at least six chemical facilities in Tennessee have converted to using safer chemical processes. These plants have eliminated the risk of a chemical disaster to 392,195 people.
Photo: Tesoro March Point Refinery near Anacortes, Wash., is shown on March 19, 2013, with Mount Baker in the background. On April 2, 2010, an explosion at the refinery killed seven workers. Photo by Scott Butner/Creative Commons license On April 2, 2010 an explosion at the Tesoro Refinery killed seven workers. After the fatal explosion, the refinery was cited for 39 “willful” and 5 serious violations of health and safety regulations, and the company was fined $2.4 million. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended that “sweeping changes to the regulatory system” be made and that the EPA revise the rules in its Chemical Accident Prevention Provisions to require the use of inherently safer systems. Washington has nine chemical facilities that each put 100,000 or more people living in a highly populated area at risk. As of 2006, at least six chemical facilities in Washington have converted to safer cost effective chemical processes. These plants have eliminated the risk of a chemical disaster to 812,783 people.
Photo: A tanker truck hauling anhydrous ammonia in transit in Atlanta, Georgia on Sept. 5, 2011. The Center for Effective Government, a nonpartisan watchdog organization, reported almost 10,000 facilities nationwide store large amounts (10,000 pounds or more) of anhydrous ammonia. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board reported four incidents involving the release of anhydrous ammonia that led to a total of six fatalities in 2009. Photo by Ben Ostrowski/Creative Commons license On May 13, 2009 two workers died at the American Cold Storage facility as a result of a deadly anhydrous ammonia gas leak. Residents within a mile-radius of the plant were told to stay indoors and avoid using heating units because of the fumes. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board reported four high consequence incidents involving anhydrous ammonia leaks that led to a total of six deaths in 2009. A preparatory academy and an elementary school are located within a mile from the facility exposing over 1,000 kids to a potential chemical disaster. Throughout the city of Louisville there are approximately eighteen schools located within a mile of a high risk chemical facility. Kentucky has thirteen chemical facilities that each put 100,000 or more people living in highly populated areas at risk. As of 2006, at least seven chemical facilities in Kentucky have converted to using safer cost-effective chemical processes. These plants have eliminated the risk of a chemical disaster to 229,847 people.
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