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Saturday, October 22, 2016

By Michael Lindenberger, The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board told senators Thursday that the Obama administration should already be using its power to require industries to adopt safer technology in making and handling deadly chemicals such as the one that exploded last April at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

“The EPA has the authority today to require companies to apply IST (inherently safer technology) in design, equipment and processes,” Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso said in testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

“These major accidents don’t have to happen,” he said. “They kill and injure workers, harm communities and destroy productive businesses.”

Fifteen people died and hundreds were injured in the tiny farming town of West when highly explosive ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer ingredient, exploded during a fire at the West Fertilizer Co.

In the blast’s wake, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) convened committee hearings to focus attention on the lax oversight under which facilities such as the one in West operate. Texas, for example, has no state fire code — and state law prohibits many smaller communities from adopting one.

On Aug. 1, President Barack Obama ordered six federal agencies to form a task force to review existing laws and industry practice, as well as to consider new ways to reduce the threat of chemical disasters. But prospects for a tough federal response are as chancy today as they were a year ago.

The working group has missed some deadlines, and has faced consistent pressure from industry groups that oppose many of the broad federal regulations safety advocates are demanding.

Boxer told EPA assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus that she applauds the president’s action, but is tiring of all the talk by the working group. “I hear a lot of words, but so far haven’t heard anything about action,” she said.

Stanislaus said the working group has spent months hearing from industry groups as well as local communities, experts and others. He said it will issue its findings in May.

Safety advocates, and Boxer, have said it’s essential that the report recommend ways the EPA or other agencies can be more aggressive, even without changing the law. One example: The government already gives EPA and the Department of Labor power to regulate “highly hazardous” chemicals.

Declaring that ammonium nitrate is one such chemical would give the government additional tools to regulate its use and handling.

That is one of many proposals under consideration, according to EPA status reports. But the agency isn’t saying whether it will make it into the final recommendations. “The report is in development,” a spokeswoman for the EPA said late Thursday. “It’s too soon to comment on its contents.”