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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.”

Boxer and the panel’s top Republican, Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, said that enforcing existing rules is key to reducing the risk of disasters.

But Boxer also praised the way California has adopted rules requiring the use of inherently safer technology. Vitter, by contrast, wrangled a concession from government officials at the hearing that imposing those kinds of new approaches on business can drive up their costs.

The hearing Thursday was important mainly because it allowed Boxer to bring in experts to testify about the importance of tough new approaches by the government, something that the working group has been hearing is unnecessary from industry groups.

Also discussed was a bill filed in response to a toxic leak in January that poisoned drinking water for 300,000 West Virginia residents. That bill will have little effect on facilities such as the one in West.

Trade groups that represent ammonium nitrates suppliers or their customers have argued that the chemical is safe if used properly. They’ve announced plans to increase self-reporting and new voluntary auditing managed by the industry.

Those firms oppose new federal mandates, especially if they require inherently safer technology, said Kathy Mathers of The Fertilizer Institute, a lobbying group.

“IST doesn’t really work in our industry,” Mathers said. “When you talk about inherently safer technology, it really depends on the industry in question. Only about 2 percent of the users of chemical fertilizer use ammonium nitrate. But those 2 percent really need that particular product. Substituting it for another alternative won’t work for them.”

But advocates for the safer-technology approach say it doesn’t always mean swapping safer chemicals for dangerous ones. Safer technology can also mean safer storage, shipping or processes.

Rick Hind of Greenpeace USA, which is pushing for stronger federal safety rules, said simply requiring firms that store ammonium nitrate on site to keep it in a more diluted form would help. “They don’t do it,” he said, “because it costs them more money.”

A 2012 refinery fire lead to new requirements that firms in California consider inherently safer technology when possible. That’s meant higher costs for some older facilities, such as the Chevron refinery that caught fire. But the tradeoff was a good one, said Michael Wilson, chief scientist for the office of industrial relations in California.

No such speedy reaction followed after the West explosion.

Texas’ senators, both Republicans, have not weighed in on what response the federal government should take, if any, on plants like the one in West, and declined to do so again Thursday.

A spokeswoman for Sen. John Cornyn said any new powers for a federal agency will be scrutinized. “Our office will examine any regulation that comes forward on a federal level very closely,” a spokeswoman said.

Sen. Ted Cruz said through a spokesman that he would monitor the bill filed in response to the West Virginia spill, but did not respond to questions about whether the senator favors a more robust federal role in workplace safety.

For Moure-Eraso, the debate was settled long ago — by countless investigations his agency has conducted into fatal incidents.

“Fundamental changes are needed,” Moure-Eraso said. “We have a regulatory system that sometimes encourages paper compliance over real risk reduction.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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