President Obama Signs Major Disaster Declaration for West

The Aug. 2 signing came one day after his executive order directing EPA, DHS, DOL, and DOJ to collaborate more, sharing information about high-risk facilities, inspections, enforcement, and incident investigation.

President Obama on Aug. 2 declared a major disaster for the town of West, Texas, signing a declaration that orders federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts the area affected by the fertilizer plant explosion in April. The White House announcement said "federal funding is available to state and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities damaged by the explosion in McLennan County. Federal funding is also available on a cost-sharing basis for hazard mitigation measures statewide."

It says FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has chosen Kevin L. Hannes as the Federal Coordinating Officer for federal recovery operations in the affected area.

A day earlier, the president signed an executive order directing federal agencies with regulatory oversight of chemical facilities to collaborate broadly to improve their monitoring of those facilities, including sharing information about high-risk facilities, inspections, enforcement, and incident investigation. The devastating explosion of the West plant, a facility storing fertilizer that had undergone little federal or state scrutiny, prompted the order; the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies also held a hearing about the West explosion and chemical facility security on Aug. 1.

Several organizations applauded the issuance of the executive order. "We support any initiatives that promise increased worker health and safety and look forward to working with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Chemical Safety Board in a proposed rulemaking," said AIHA President Barbara J. Dawson, CIH, CSP. "In addition, we support the increased cooperation of government agencies in information sharing. It's unfortunate that it takes an event such as fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, to move forward with increased efforts to protect workers, but this executive order is a step in the right direction. AIHA members involved in process safety management will take a close look at the Presidential executive order and offer more definitive comments as soon as it has been thoroughly reviewed."

Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, issued a statement saying the order "brings leadership and direction that is urgently needed to improve chemical safety and security throughout the country. . . . Today's order outlines a comprehensive action plan to address chemical hazards," he continued. "Once implemented, it will improve coordination of EPA, OSHA and DHS and other government agencies in their efforts to address these deadly hazards. It will provide local first responders with ready access to information so they can prepare for and respond to chemical emergencies, and it will enhance oversight of high-risk facilities. It will also spur action to modernize chemical safety regulations, including OSHA's process safety management standard, which the AFL-CIO and unions have been seeking for many years."

Some of the House hearing's witnesses said cooperation among the agencies in this area already has increased since the April 17, 2013, explosion in West. David Wulf, director of DHS's National Protection and Programs Directorate, said his agency is reviewing EPA data under the Risk Management Plan, and both EPA and DHS have sent updated lists of facilities to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which developed a set of heuristics to rate possible matches; the initial matching was finished in June, and the lab provided lists of facilities that apparently should have filed paperwork with EPA or DHS but did not. DHS is looking at similar efforts involving OSHA and also DOJ's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives data on explosives licensees and permittees and facility data that has been shared by the state of Texas, he said.

Paul Derig, EHS manager for J.R. Simplot Company, also testified on behalf of the Agricultural Retailers Association. He said ARA suggests these enhancements be made to the CFATS program and the Ammonium Nitrate Fertilizer Registration Program:

  • Reevaluate the Ammonium Nitrate Fertilizer Registration Program
  • Target unidentified chemical facilities through intergovernmental and industry cooperation
  • Check the Partnership Model
  • Raise "Partnership" outreach with industry
  • Reassess CFATS small facility compliance burdens

"Some claim that if a functional AN registration program was implemented the West fertilizer accident would have never happened," Derig said, according to the transcript of his prepared testimony that was posted by the subcommittee. "We believe that under the proposed registration framework, West fertilizer would have at least registered under the program. West might have paid more attention to their operations and AN inventory if the rule was issued, but there is no way to make that determination.

"The West facility was required to comply with specific OSHA regulations, including the Hazard Communication Standard and Explosives and Blasting Agents Standard. It can be argued that compliance with these programs could have prevented or mitigated the incident, while it’s not clear what the compliance status of the facility was at the time of the incident. The Explosives and Blasting Agents Standard has many measures that would have prevented or mitigated the incident," he added.

Derig said ARA hopes DHS will issue an ammonium nitrate fertilizer registration program that documents and tracks the sale of the product without unduly burdening the agricultural sector's access to the chemical for legitimate agricultural use.

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