Calls for Safer Chemicals Dominate Listening Session on Chemical Security
by Sofia Plagakis, 11/21/2013
On Nov. 15, three federal agencies held the second of a series of “listening sessions” to improve chemical facility safety and security. Held in Washington, DC, the major point of discussion during the daylong session was on the need for the federal government to require high-risk facilities to convert to safer chemicals when available and affordable.
In the wake of the West, TX explosion in April, President Barack Obama issued an executive order on Aug. 1, requiring the three agencies—U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—to identify policy changes that will significantly enhance the safety and security of chemical facilities, especially to the workers and communities working in and living near those facilities. These “listening sessions” are an opportunity for federal officials to gather information from the public and key stakeholders.
I testified and stressed five main points. First, excessive secrecy and restricted access contribute to gaps, oversights, and inefficiencies in chemical security efforts. Second, better collaboration among federal agencies and state authorities is needed to address these gaps. Third, engaging and informing the public is essential to protecting communities from chemical facility risks.
Fourth, agencies should review and update chemical security-related standards on a regular basis. We were glad to hear earlier that morning that EPA is looking into adding more chemicals to its Risk Management Plan program and OSHA is updating its safety standards for high-risk facilities, known as Process Safety Management standards.
Finally, regulations and statutes should be updated to establish clear authority for agencies to require chemical facilities to use safer technologies and chemicals and better protect Americans in the process. I noted that “despite the availability and cost-effectiveness of safer and more cost-effective chemicals and processes, only a fraction of the highest-risk facilities have voluntarily converted.” In fact, a recent poll found that a majority of people want the federal government to require facilities to use safer chemicals and processes to prevent chemical disasters.
About 100 people attended the session, with many others listening via teleconference. Throughout the day, environmental justice representatives, labor unions, environmental organizations, representatives of firefighters, and other safety advocates emphasized the need for the federal government to require facilities to use safer chemicals and processes. Industry representatives, such as the American Chemistry Council, argued that facilities should be left to voluntarily convert to safer chemicals, which is the current status quo.
“Some in industry have opposed mandatory IST [inherently safer technologies] programs because retrofits and updated processes can be expensive to implement,” stated Christina Morgan of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the independent federal agency in charge of investigating chemical accidents. “However, the financial and human costs of chemical explosions and fires - and the costs of preparing a community for the worst case - need to be part of any decision process.”
The Working Group plans to release their initial set of recommendations next month. We hope that a federal requirement for facilities to use safer chemicals when available is among the recommendations.
How to Participate - Upcoming Sessions and Webinars
For more information on upcoming listening sessions (to be held Orland, FL on Dec. 11, Hamilton, NJ on Jan. 7, California (possibly Los Angeles) on Jan. 7, and Houston, TX in mid-January) and webinars (scheduled for Nov. 25 and Dec. 16), and how to either attend or listen in by telephone, or submit written comments, go to: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-11-19/pdf/2013-27681.pdf and https://www.govevents.com/.