Obama’s Executive Order to Improve Chemical Facility Safety, One Year Later
by Amanda Starbuck, 8/1/2014
One year ago today, President Obama issued Executive Order 13650, which directs federal agencies to improve the safety and security of chemical facilities. The order came in response to a string of chemical disasters, including the April 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas that killed 15 people and injured more than 200. The executive order calls for increased coordination among chemical facilities, state governments, and first responders to better prepare for potential disasters. It also seeks improved interagency coordination, as well as better chemical safety standards.
The executive order established an Interagency Working Group to coordinate these efforts. Here is what they have accomplished so far:
- In fall 2013 and early 2014, the Working Group hosted listening sessions to gather public input on how the federal government can improve chemical safety and security. Participants were diverse and included representatives from environmental organizations, labor groups, and the chemical industry, among others. The Center for Effective Government testified at two sessions and later submitted a list of recommendations to the Working Group. Our core message is that requiring facilities to adopt inherently safer chemicals and technologies whenever feasible is the best step toward preventing chemical disasters.
- In May, the Working Group released its Report to the President, which highlights its progress to date and creates a Federal Action Plan that includes directions and a timeline for achieving specific goals. One goal is to modernize the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Risk Management Program, which requires facilities that store, produce, or use large quantities of chemicals to report the potential effects of a release, their efforts to prevent accidents, and provide emergency response plan details. The Action Plan calls on EPA to issue a Request for Information within one year on how it can improve the Risk Management Program. Among the suggested improvements is requiring facilities to examine the feasibility of adopting safer technologies.
- EPA released its Request for Information on July 31, initiating a 90-day public comment period that closes Oct. 29. The document seeks input on various options for improving the Risk Management Program, including the use of inherently safer technologies. EPA has committed to publishing a guidance document to inform facilities about safer technologies and processes that can reduce the risk of chemical disasters. However, EPA is clear that it is not committing to rulemaking at this time and requests further comments on the feasibility of a rule that requires facilities to assess alternatives and implement safer chemicals and technologies.
To date, the Working Group is on track with the Federal Action Plan it set out in its Report to the President. Even so, new rules remain a long way off. After the Request for Information comment period closes, EPA will review comments and decide whether to pursue regulations. Any proposed rules would be accompanied by another public comment period, pushing the finalization of any potential new rules far into the future. In fact, the Federal Action Plan only calls for EPA to consider requiring facilities to implement inherently safer technologies where feasible. The plan indicates that should EPA decide to proceed with such a requirement, the rule would not be finalized until of the fall of 2016 – more than three years after the president issued the executive order.
Meanwhile, communities across the country remain at risk of preventable chemical disasters, including the one in ten students who attends school within a mile of a dangerous facility that has yet to adopt safer technologies. Advocates including the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, an alliance of public interest groups that includes the Center for Effective Government, urge EPA to use its existing authority to develop standards capable of preventing disasters. The Coalition is calling on EPA to develop a rule within the next 18 months that requires the use of safer chemicals and technologies. Delays in rulemaking will only increase the chance of preventable disasters.
Both the Report to the President and the Request for Information acknowledge that adopting inherently safer technologies is one of the surest ways to promote chemical facility safety because it focuses on preventing disasters. The next step is for EPA to act quickly and use its authority to make this proven prevention approach a requirement.