Preventing Chemical Disasters and Protecting Your Right to Know

On March 31, the Center for Effective Government filed comments with the Interagency Working Group established under President Barack Obama's Executive Order 13650, Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security. Our comments provide key recommendations to the Working Group that will help prevent chemical disasters and ensure that the public has information about the risks that chemical facilities pose to their communities.

In our comments, we lay out six key recommendations. First, all exemptions under regulatory programs dealing with chemical safety and security should be removed. Retail facilities, water treatment plants, and oil and gas facilities can pose serious risks to nearby communities, but are exempt from key chemical oversight programs. All facilities should be required to meet the same safety and security standards.

Second, agencies should harmonize the scope of regulations and expand coverage of hazardous chemicals. We need to ensure that the broadest list of chemicals of concern, types of hazards and facilities are covered in a consistent manner under the various agency regulatory programs.

Third, we urged agencies to update regulations to address for human factors in process safety and risk management. Major incidents, such as the BP Texas City Refinery in March 2005, have highlighted the need to address human factors, including worker fatigue, staffing issues, poor design, and poor communication.

Fourth, federal agencies should use indicators to better evaluate facility performance over time. Agencies should determine what information is already being collected that could be used as effective indicators of safety and control. Additionally, agencies should identify any information gaps for other needed indicators. Agencies should consult with all key stakeholders, including local communities and local officials in preparing a set of indicators.

Fifth, agencies should update regulations and statutes to require chemical facilities to use safer technologies and chemicals to better protect Americans. 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 addition, agencies should create an information clearinghouse for safer chemicals, materials and processes.

Finally, engaging and informing the public is essential to protecting communities from chemical facility risks. Excessive and unnecessary secrecy around chemical security programs could cost lives in the event of a chemical emergency. At a minimum, emergency management and response plans must be publicly accessible online and easily searchable, and there must be procedures for rapidly notifying the public in the event of emergencies. It would be even better if communities were more involved in the development of strong emergency management and response plans.

In addition to our comments, 283 people submitted comments to the Working Group in response to our action alert. And over 20,000 people submitted comments in response to action alerts by public interest, labor, environmental justice and environmental organizations calling for the federal government to require facilities to use safer chemicals. Thank you to everyone who stood up to support safer chemicals and our right to know about the risks to our communities.

The Working Group has until May 1 to report their recommendations to the president, but given previous delays after last year’s government shutdown, we are not sure that the agencies will meet the target deadline set out in the executive order.

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