Fixing Chemical Security after West, Texas

by Sean Moulton, 8/8/2013

In the aftermath of the West Fertilizer explosion in April, Congress and the Obama administration are looking for ways they can better address chemical plant security and safety. A congressional hearing on Aug. 1 focused on how the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) chemical security program missed problems at the West Fertilizer plant. On the same day, President Obama issued a new executive order instructing federal agencies to form a working group to identify and fix any regulatory or informational loopholes.

West Fertilizer Disaster

A fire broke out at the fertilizer plant in the early evening of April 17, and first responders quickly arrived. As firefighters battled the blaze, an explosion powerful enough to be felt 50 miles away and measured at the equivalent of a 2.1-magnitude earthquake tore through the plant. The explosion demolished up to 80 homes in West, TX, and damaged other buildings nearby, including an apartment complex, a middle school, and a nursing home. The 133 nursing home residents, many of whom had been injured, were evacuated and taken to hospitals.

House Hearing

On Aug. 1, the House Committee on Homeland Security's Subcommittee on Cyber Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies held a hearing on the threat of unidentified chemical facilities in light of the West, TX, tragedy. The hearing focused on lax oversight, in particular the DHS’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program’s lack of knowledge about the facility and other outlier facilities. “There are literally thousands of facilities across the country that store or handle threshold quantities of high risk chemicals that have gone under the radar of the DHS,” Subcommittee Chairman Patrick Meehan (R-PA) said in his opening statement.

Although the West Fertilizer explosion is not considered an act of terrorism, Meehan argued that had the CFATS program known about the facility, more interagency collaboration might have prevented the tragic accident. Ranking Member Yvette D. Clarke (D-NY) further questioned how DHS accessed chemical information that is routinely gathered by other agencies and explained that data sharing should be an established norm: “This is a basic, 101 DHS mission, which is to coordinate and collaborate with other agencies to keep the homeland secure… We’re constantly talking about information sharing and if we’re not doing this it’s really flying in the face of the mission of this agency.”

Sean Moulton, Director of Open Government for the Center for Effective Government, was one of those invited to testify. During his testimony, Moulton stressed four main points:

  • First, the incident at West Fertilizer revealed disturbing loopholes in the regulatory system and a fundamental problem with the way we manage chemical security and safety information. The CFATS program was unaware of the facility or its storage of ammonium nitrate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knew about the facility but not the ammonium nitrate. State emergency officials knew about the facility and its ammonium nitrate, but they didn’t know the facility was missing from CFATS. The excessive secrecy and information restrictions at these agencies contribute to gaps, oversights, and inefficiencies in chemical security efforts, including the CFATS program specifically.

  • Second, better collaboration among federal agencies and state authorities is needed to address these gaps. The most effective way for agencies to share information is to narrow the amount of protected information – and make the rest public in open data formats. If a list of CFATS facilities was public, perhaps an official in Texas or a plant employee would have noticed that West Fertilizer was not on that list.

  • Third, engaging and informing the public is essential to protecting communities from chemical facility risks. Citizens, first responders, plant workers, and local officials all need to be better informed to prepare for chemical emergencies. The flip-side of the coin is that excessive secrecy can cost lives in a chemical emergency, and the tragedy at West Fertilizer may be an example of this. The West firefighters, apparently unaware of the ammonium nitrate, may not have been able to properly judge the situation and adopt the recommended tactics for ammonium nitrate fires – evacuation and containing the fire from a distance.

  • Finally, increased transparency for CFATS can improve its effectiveness and accountability. When programs operate behind closed doors with little public oversight, they often suffer from delays, wasted resources, and management problems. The DHS Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office recently found delays and significant management problems in the CFATS program. We need transparency to know if reform efforts are working.

Meehan requested that DHS follow up with him regarding timelines and metrics on efforts to engage with other agencies, since similar, previous efforts had failed.

Executive Order

While the congressional hearing was underway, the White House issued an executive order on Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security, which addresses many of the issues raised at the hearing. The order forms a Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group, led by three agencies – DHS, EPA, and the Department of Labor. The new working group is charged with several specific tasks along three main goals.

Improving Coordination with State, Local, and Tribal Partners

  • Within 90 days, assess the possibility of sharing CFATS data and other information on explosive materials with state and local emergency officials.
  • Within 135 days, develop a plan to improve coordination with state, local, and tribal officials – including opportunities to improve public access to information.

Enhanced Federal Coordination

  • Within 45 days, deploy a pilot project to test best practices for interagency collaboration around chemical facility safety and security.
  • Within 270 days, create standard procedures for unified federal action concerning chemical facilities, including inspections, enforcement, reporting, and use of information.
  • Within 90 days, develop an analysis of information collection and sharing between agencies along with recommendations for improvements.
  • Within 180 days, propose a coordinated data sharing process to track chemical facility information submitted to agencies.

Modernizing Policy, Regulation, and Standards

  • Within 90 days, develop a list of potential regulatory and legislative proposals to improve the safety and security of ammonium nitrate.
  • Within 90 days, identify options to improve existing programs for chemical facility safety and security.
  • Within 180 days, engage stakeholders to discuss options for improved safety and security.
  • Within 270 days, develop a plan to implement improvements to chemical risk management.

Conclusion

The increased congressional oversight and executive action are important steps in the right direction to address regulatory loopholes and information gaps that some chemical facilities seem to fall into. As the deadlines for deliverables from the new working group come due, it will become clearer how much progress is being made on the problems.

However, it is also critical that citizens increase their awareness of the facilities near their communities and the risks associated with those facilities. Citizen engagement with local officials, first responders, and facility representatives is a critical component of emergency planning that can sometimes result in ways to reduce risks and better protect communities.