THE MAGAZINE

Chemical Facilities Tackle an Explosive Problem

By Megan Gates

However, many of the safety provisions targeted towards safe storage of ammonium nitrate are “confusing or contradictory even to code experts,” according to a statement by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Also, current regulations allow ammonium nitrate to be stored in wooden buildings and in wooden bins and don't require sprinkler systems unless there are more than 2,500 tons of ammonium nitrate being stored in that location. That amount is significantly more then what caused the West, Texas, incident. Furthermore, the standard “contains a ‘grandfathering’ provision that allows existing buildings that were constructed prior to code adoption—and fail to meet all of its provisions—to continue in use,” according to the board.

Supplemental material, like the advisory and recommendations from the board, is being taken into account along with stakeholder viewpoints to create new regulations to make ammonium nitrate storage, production, and handling safer as part of the working group’s efforts.

Interagency Communication

In addition to examining ammonium nitrate, the working group conducted listening sessions across the country, including those at the General Services Administration building in Washington, D.C., in November and January, allowing stakeholders ranging from members of the public to private industry representatives to speak directly to members of the group about their concerns for five minutes each. Stakeholders were also allowed to submit statements and comments to the working group electronically.

Mathy Stanislaus, working group cochair and assistant administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response of the EPA, said that the agency is already working on drafting a request for more information on risk management programs for chemical plant safety. “We’re also looking at explosives, strengthening and clarifying existing requirements, and looking at various other options to improve generally the safety of chemical plants,” Stanislaus said.

Those goals fall into line with the executive order, which calls for the working group to develop a “plan to support and further enable efforts by state regulators; state, local, and tribal emergency responders; chemical facility owners and operators; and local and tribal communities to work together to improve chemical facility safety and security.”

One change that many speakers asked the working group to make is to increase availability of information to first responders and local fire departments about the types of chemicals being stored at facilities, the location of those chemicals, and training procedures for emergency situations. Regulations already exist granting access to some of this information for first responders, but that information isn’t always adequate and some departments lack the training needed to be able to respond in an emergency.

Lee Anderson, senior legislative and policy advocate for the Blue Green Alliance, which represents labor unions and environmental organizations, recommended in his five minutes that the government create a public database that would allow private citizens to look up information about hazardous chemicals in their community. By making information—such as the types of chemicals at facilities, dates of inspections, and violations of regulations—available to the public, it could prevent facilities from following West Fertilizer’s example and “falling through the cracks,” according to Anderson.
 

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