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Chemical Disasters Spark New U.S. Order

Thursday, August 8, 2013

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The U.S. is moving to crack down on chemical safety and security in the wake of a growing series of catastrophic chemical accidents, including the April plant explosion that killed 15 people in West, TX.

President Obama has signed Executive Order 13650: Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security, which:

  • Establishes a federal-level inter-agency Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group;
  • Directs federal agencies to improve their hazard and response coordination with state, local and tribal authorities;
  • Orders federal agencies to work together to develop better targeted risk and response information;
  • Recommends modernizing relevant standards and information; and
  • Working with all private and public chemical industry stakeholders to share best practices.

Paint and Coatings Impact

Any such changes could potentially affect the paint and coatings industry.

The American Coatings Association, which represents manufacturers, reported the Executive Order to its members Aug. 6 and says it expects "opportunities for industry participation in this process, including through the CSCC."


The ACA hopes to influence any changes in chemical facility operations through its membership in the Chemical Sector Coordinating Council.

The Chemical Sector Coordinating Council is a group of chemical industry trade associations and owner/operators, including the ACA, "who are committed to enhancing the physical and cybersecurity of the sector."

The council says it aims to "facilitate effective coordination" between federal infrastructure programs and infrastructure protection activities in the private and other public sectors.

Action Items

The Executive Order, signed Aug. 1, sets 45- and 90-day clocks for several efforts, including:

  • Developing inter-agency collaboration plans;
  • Identifying opportunities for federal technical assistance to support state and local emergency training and contingency plans;
  • Assessing the feasibility of sharing data related to the storage of explosive chemicals with emergency responders;
  • Identifying any chemicals that should be added to the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) "Chemicals of Interest" list; and
  • Identifying whether changes are needed in EPA's Risk Management Plan or OSHA's Process Safety Management standard, which cover facilities that handle or store highly hazardous chemicals.

Notably, the order specifically instructs the new Working Group to "take into account the capabilities, limitations, and needs of the first responder community."

Most of the victims killed in the West, TX, blast and blaze were volunteer emergency responders. In all, the disaster killed 15 people; injured more than 160; and destroyed or damaged scores of homes and other structures.

West, TX, Disaster

The specific cause of the West Fertilizer Co. blast has not been determined, but the facility stored 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, a toxic, highly explosive chemical that is easily ignited.

West, TX, disaster area
Shane.torgerson / Wikimedia

President Obama's order followed the massive explosion that rocked West, TX, in April. That disaster killed 15 people, most of them volunteer emergency responders.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration had last inspected the facility in 1985, when the agency issued a $30 fine for improper storage of anhydrous ammonia.

According to a 2012 filing with the Environmental Protection Agency, West Fertilizer said it stored 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and 110,000 pounds of anhyrdous ammonia on the site.

However, that information was apparently not shared with the Department of Homeland Security, which must be notified of ammonium nitrate stores of that magnitude.

Order Applauded

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent government agency that has long demanded tougher chemical safety laws and regulations, applauded the new Executive Order.

"Incidents the CSB has been investigating, such as the recent tragic explosion and fire in West, TX, have revealed serious gaps in the prevention of accidents and in response preparations for major chemical releases by companies and government authorities, leaving Americans vulnerable," board chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said in a statement.

Rafael Moure-Eraso

U.S. Chemical Safety Board chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said his agency hoped the order would lead to updated EPA and OSHA chemical safety regulations.

Moure-Eraso singled out for praise Obama's call for review of the Risk Management Plan and the Process Safety Management standard. The Chemical Safety Board has urged updates to both for years.

"The West accident showed a particularly glaring need for comprehensive regulation of reactive chemical hazards and in particular ammonium nitrate," said Moure-Eraso.

"The destruction I personally saw there—the obliteration of homes, schools, and businesses by an ammonium nitrate explosion—was almost beyond imagination. The loss of life was horrible.

"It is my hope that this Executive Order will spur development of regulation and enforcement for the safe handling of ammonium nitrate and other gaps in the coverage of reactive hazards that the CSB has previously identified to help prevent future incidents."


Tagged categories: Certifications and standards; Chemical Plants; Construction chemicals; EPA; Facility Managers; Fatalities; Government; Health and safety; OSHA; Process Safety Management

Comment from M. Halliwell, (8/8/2013, 10:43 AM)

Let's hope that this Executive Order actually leads to some changes....most of these agencies have to fight years, if not decades, to get changes through the bureaucratic red tape.

Comment from Jim Johnson, (8/8/2013, 2:50 PM)

Here we go again...ruling by fiat Executive Orders instead of by lay as required in our Constitution. I am not against improvements in safety, but I am definitely against this unconstitutional method. I guess it is to be expected because obama openly stated he is going to rule by intentionally going around Congress and pressing his personal agenda. But it almost seems that congress is complicit due to the fact they are allowing it to continue when they could stop him.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (8/9/2013, 10:20 AM)

I'll leave the politics of it to you, Jim....but the observations I have made are that it takes the better part of a decade (or more) for OSHA, EPA and other "oversight" bodies to get a meaningful ammendment to their rules or regulations through the bureaucracy and red tape. I'm not a fan of executive orders (or the equivalent wherever one might live), but perhaps it'll "light a fire" so to speak. Far too many good pieces of US legislation or changes to federal regulations have their bills ammended and added to until a) it won't be passed because of something added, b) the changes have totally altered what the intent was or c) it takes so long that it is irrelevant by the time it is passed.

Comment from Jim Johnson, (8/12/2013, 11:56 AM)

All good observations, but none of them justify an unconstitutional illegal action. Honestly, if Congress is not correctly doing their job then it is time to vote in someone else and get a person who will do the job. Too often the problem is the individuals that vote for the members of congress that are not performing their duty, yet they vote for them anyway. If you leave politics to others you will get elected officials that others have chosen for you.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (8/13/2013, 10:31 AM)

I understand where you are coming from Jim, but I'm not in the US, so I don't get a vote....though from what I have seen, it looks like either party has about the same propensity to not perform their duties. Just like the Canadian senate, I don't see change coming to US politics anytime soon :(

Comment from Jim Johnson, (8/15/2013, 1:17 AM)

Perhaps not, but I cannot abide by such illegal unconstitutional acts, especially by someone who swore an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution!

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