Chemical Safety Report Opens Door for Improvements, but Strong Requirements Still Needed
by Sean Moulton, 6/6/2014
On June 6, the interagency working group that President Obama formed in the wake of the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion released its report to the president, conveying its recommendations for improving chemical facility safety and security. The report outlines many of the significant problems facing chemical facility safety in this country, including limited information sharing, incomplete and incompatible regulations, and the need for greater use of safer technologies. The recommendations on these problems point in the right direction but leave the details to the individual agencies to resolve as they move forward on possible regulations and policy changes.
The report is the culmination of months of research, investigation, information gathering, and outreach by the interagency working group. On Aug. 1, 2013, the president issued an executive order tasking three agencies – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – to lead an interagency effort to identify policy changes that will significantly enhance the safety and security of chemical facilities, especially for workers and communities living near those facilities.
The report recommendations open the door for many changes that environmental justice and public safety advocates have long pursued as essential, including the use of safer chemicals and technology. The report specifically recommends that the administration first “develop voluntary guidance for operators on how to reduce risks by employing safer technology, processes, and alternatives." While a helpful step that will assist many facilities interested in pursuing safer technologies in making the transition, public interest advocates and communities residing near these facilities have demanded that implementation of safer technologies and processes when feasible be a requirement, not a company choice.
The report includes another general recommendation that makes such a requirement a possibility. The working group recommends that agencies consider modifications to existing regulatory requirements to “include specific safer technology and alternatives analysis and documentation of actions taken to implement feasible alternatives.” Such a required analysis could include a mandatory floor of safety – safer chemicals and technologies that are considered the new norm – that facilities must meet or fully justify why such a minimum standard of safety cannot be achieved.
As agencies pursue such regulatory changes, continued public pressure will mean the difference between this effort resulting in a few shortcuts being added to the regulatory maze around chemical safety or genuine improvements that ensure communities will become safer than they are now.