WASHINGTON -- Three federal agencies on Friday issued a new security warning for the explosive chemical believed to have triggered an April disaster the in West, Texas – prompting praise from a key senator.
The advisory, issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, pertains to ammonium nitrate, which is believed to have been stored in significant quantities at the Texas fertilizer plant that exploded, leveling homes and killing 14 people.
EPA officials said in a statement that the alert “provides lessons learned for facility owners and operators, emergency planners and first responders from recent incidents,” including the April tragedy.
During a congressional hearing on the incident in June, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) slammed EPA officials for what she said was a lack of action aimed at protecting the public from domestic-chemical threats. In particular, Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, criticized the agency for not having issued an alert on ammonium nitrate since 1997.
In a statement on Friday, Boxer said she was “very grateful” the administration issued the update.
“After the terrible explosion in West, which took the lives of at least 14 people including first responders, I pledged that the EPW Committee would focus on how to prevent such needless tragedies in the future,” Boxer said. “If ammonium nitrate is stored safely or if alternatives are used, explosions could have been prevented in the past and more explosions could be prevented in the future.”
EPA officials have yet to issue new rules on chemical risk management, which Boxer said during the June hearing had been recommended by a 2002 U.S. Chemical Safety Board report, and for which labor and environmental groups have since petitioned the agency.
President Obama in August did, however, sign an executive order directing the Homeland Security, Labor and Agriculture secretaries to “develop a list of potential regulatory and legislative proposals to improve the safe and secure storage, handling, and sale of ammonium nitrate.” The order also called on EPA and OSHA officials to review whether their chemical risk-management programs should cover additional chemicals.
The presidential directive also addressed the issue of so-called “outlier” facilities that, like the Texas facility, the Homeland Security Department failed to regulate under its Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards. The order established a chemical facility safety and security working group, through which several federal agencies are expected to work together to improve their coordination with state and local governments.