Agencies need to work together more effectively to improve safety

US President Barack Obama has issued a mandate for federal agencies to review industrial chemical safety regulations in the wake of the deadly fertiliser plant explosion in West, Texas in April.

The mandate specifies a series of deadlines for the secretaries of homeland security, labor and agriculture, as well as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to identify safety regulation and enforcement improvements covering storage and handling of hazardous substances. The disparate agencies tasked with regulating chemical sites need to identify ways to share data and work together more efficiently.

Over the past few years, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has already flagged 3,120 high-risk facilities for inspection. But progress on actual inspections is slow. Assessment standards are still in development and communication between agencies is strained. The presidential mandate aims to speed up the process.

Congress can legislate and agencies can promulgate, but regulations are only as good as they are followed and enforced

According to the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB), the West explosion was caused by a warehouse fire igniting 30 tons of ammonium nitrate that was stored in wooden bins without a sprinkler system. 

Currently, standards for ammonium nitrate storage and handling are not nationally unified. Common standards applied to industrial facilities include those of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), however the CSB highlights that those standards are outdated: they refer to a 1953 publication by the US Bureau of Mines. The standard also includes a ‘grandfathering’ provision that does not require existing buildings, constructed before the code’s adoption, to update their facilities.

Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), said in a statement that ‘once implemented, it will improve coordination of the EPA, the DHS, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other government agencies in their efforts to address these deadly hazards.’

Less explosive alternatives, such as calcium ammonium nitrate fertilisers, are popular in Europe and are not explosive when the level of ammonium nitrate is kept below 37%. Although they are uncommon in the US, identifying such alternatives is addressed in the mandate as an element of the overall plans.

Although the presidential mandate has been resoundingly welcomed by regulatory authorities, critics have noted that it comes five years after the US Congress similarly proposed that sales of ammonium nitrate should be regulated, which continues to be debated. 

The Agricultural Retailers Association has openly expressed concerns about a federal mandate. Indeed, the president of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates (SOCMA), Lawrence Sloan, said in a statement that ‘Congress can legislate and agencies can promulgate, but regulations are only as good as they are followed and enforced. Simply adding another layer of federal regulation doesn’t necessarily ensure additional certainty or safety.’