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August 07, 2013
Obama tackles chemical security

In the wake of several recent incidents, including the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion, President Obama issued an executive order aimed at improving chemical safety and security. The executive order cites the need for better protection of workers and communities from the risks of hazardous chemicals and directs various agencies of the government to better coordinate their efforts.

The order establishes a Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group led by the Secretary of Homeland Security, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Secretary of Labor. The group will also include the heads of the Department of Justice, Department of Agriculture, and Department of Transportation.

The primary goal of the executive order is increased coordination and data sharing  between both federal, state, and local levels of government and different governmental agencies. In addition, the executive order directs the working group to examine ways to improve data sharing and cooperation between government agencies and first responders. Among the federal agencies specifically listed as targets of this effort are the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), the EPA, and OSHA.

The executive order also specifically targets ammonium nitrate for improvements in safety regulations. Ammonium nitrate, of course, was responsible for the explosion in West, Texas. In that disaster, lack of coordination has been cited as a reason that hazardous conditions went under the radar of enforcement agencies. Currently, ammonium nitrate is regulated by a patchwork of agencies, including OSHA, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and various state-level agencies.

The DHS currently administers the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program, which identifies chemicals of interest and quantities at which facilities using these chemicals must report their presence to the DHS. Obama’s executive order directs the Secretary of Homeland Security to determine whether any additional substances should be considered for addition to the CFATS chemicals of interest list.

Finally, the order directs the Department of Labor (DOL) and the EPA to review the chemical hazards covered by the EPA’s Risk Management Program and OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) standard to determine if either of these standards should be expanded to include additional substances and types of hazards. The review of the PSM standard is specifically aimed at determining whether changes in retail and commercial exemptions from the standard are necessary and identifying areas where modernization of the standard would improve chemical safety.

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