Sustained Outrage

Chemical safety work frozen by federal shutdown

Plant Explosion Texas

This Thursday April 18, 2013, aerial photo shows the remains of a fertilizer plant destroyed by an explosion in West, Texas. The massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. Wednesday night killed at least 14 people and injured more than 160. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

We’ve been writing in the Gazette and on my Coal Tattoo blog about the potential impacts of the federal government shutdown on coal-mine safety and health. Meanwhile, others have made clear the impacts on other types of industrial and public safety matters.  Take for example this story from the Dallas Morning News:

Federal efforts to improve chemical safety and investigate what went wrong in the deadly West fertilizer blast are stalled because of the partial government shutdown, Sen. Barbara Boxer said Tuesday.

Boxer, a California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate’s environment and public works committee, said that means deadlines set by President Barack Obama for Cabinet members and agency heads to review and overhaul regulations, safety practices, data-sharing and emergency response won’t be met.

The first deadline, for agencies to submit proposals for improvements, is Nov. 1.

The shutdown also is delaying the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s final report on the blast.

“That explosion is a prime example of the situation we’re in now, where the agencies that are supposed to come up with ways to make sure this never happens again just can’t meet,” she said at a news conference.

Momentum on improving chemical safety and security in wake of the West disaster is also at risk in the shutdown, Boxer said.

Obama issued his executive order on Aug. 1. The order imposed a series of deadlines, the first of which is a few weeks away. Multiple federal agencies had to submit preliminary proposals for improvements.

But those will “definitely be delayed,” Boxer said.

Another story in the Dallas paper examined the important issue of strengthening regulations on ammonium nitrate:

Ammonium nitrate fertilizer is not allowed in Afghanistan. The country banned it three years ago because of its use in bombs against NATO soldiers.

The fertilizer’s explosive nature has led to similar prohibitions elsewhere, including China, Colombia, Germany, Ireland and the Philippines.

But in the United States, you can purchase it pure by the ton. Then you can store it in a wooden warehouse with no sprinkler system, a few hundred feet from a middle school.

That’s what happened in the Central Texas farming town of West, where an explosion destroyed nearby schools, houses and a nursing home. The blast killed 15 people, including 12 first responders. Several hundred more suffered injuries, some as severe as broken bones, ruptured organs and blindness.

For more than a decade, U.S. efforts to tighten controls over ammonium nitrate fertilizer have repeatedly failed, bogged down by bureaucratic gridlock and industry resistance. Regulations approved years ago remain unenforced and unfinished. Mere talk of safer substitutes has been blocked by those with profits at stake.

In fact, just 13 days before the West disaster, the only two remaining U.S. manufacturers of ammonium nitrate fertilizer pleaded for Washington’s help to preserve their $300 million annual market. Company executives bemoaned the “terrible toll” of regulation and the “pressure” of increased competition from nonexplosive substitutes.

The paper also noted, though:

Before the shutdown, Boxer said, there was traction on possibly tightening controls on ammonium nitrate fertilizer. That was the chemical that detonated after a fire engulfed the West Fertilizer Co. plant on April 17, killing 15 and injuring more than 300 others.

Discussion about moving to less dangerous fertilizers was part of that conversation, she said.

But talks are on hold between the Environmental Protection Agency, which falls under the jurisdiction of her committee, and other agencies.

At the same time, Jeff Johnson at Chemical and Engineering News had a piece that explained more about the status of the CSB during the government shutdown (read the agency’s contingency plan here):

If a chemical plant or refinery blew up today, no federal investigators would be rushing to the site to determine the cause.

Along with most of the rest of the federal government, the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board is “effectively shut down,” says Daniel Horowitz, CSB managing director. All but three CSB employees have been furloughed—Horowitz, CSB’s general counsel, and an information technology specialist.

“If a large incident were to occur,” Horowitz says, “we would confer with the Office of Management & Budget about the potential recall of investigators from furlough. However, that would be a difficult prospect at best, since the entire administrative side of our house is closed.”

He also notes that “other agencies that assist with CSB travel and accounting are heavily impacted by the shutdown.”

Previously, some have suggested that the CSB was prevented by the government shutdown from investigating last week’s incident at the Clearon plant in South Charleston, W.Va. Actually, it seems terribly unlikely that the incident would have prompted a board investigation, given the agency’s huge backlog of unfinished work (including its still-unpublished report on the deaths of three workers at the AL Solutions plant in New Cumberland, W.Va.