In April, a deadly explosion in April killed at least 12, sent an earthquake-like tremor through the town of West, Texas, and blasted out windows and leveled buildings, including schools and homes. It was a disaster that could have been avoided.
Ammonium nitrate stored at a fertilizer plant very likely caused the catastrophic events, even though the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) had recommended that the EPA adopt stricter safety measures for reactive chemicals, including ammonium nitrate, over a decade ago. But, as Senator Barbara Boxer made very clear at a Senate hearing last Thursday, the EPA has consistently failed to make such changes.
Over a decade over, the CBS had recommended that the EPA classify reactive chemicals as “extremely hazardous” in the General Duties clause of Clean Air Act. Such a designation would mean that anyone using such chemicals must have an EPA-approved plan for handling them. Even though the CBS noted that at least 167 accidents involving such chemicals had occurred, its recommendations were ignored under the Bush administration and have continued to go unheeded under Obama.
The result? At the plant in West, Texas, about 100,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate were stored in wooden bins inside a wooden building that had no fire sprinklers. Officials say that the building also contained “significant quantities” of combustible dry corn and milo seeds. In contrast, in the U.K. and in the state of Western Australia, ammonium nitrate must be stored in a facility that is “constructed from materials that will not burn, such as concrete, bricks or steel.”
Boxer is the Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee and a long-time defender of the EPA. But she was unsparing in her questioning last week of Barry Breen, the deputy assistant administrator of the EPA responsible for emergency response. In her opening remarks, Boxer called on the EPA to adopt the recommendations from a decade ago and noted that the number of facilities handling such deadly chemicals is in the thousands.
As the Dallas Morning News points out, in Texas alone there are at least 74 sites that contain large stores of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate. There are likely more because there is no federal agency that has “clear oversight for ammonium nitrate.” Full information about where and how such deadly chemicals are stored is not readily available, with authorities “weighing public awareness against keeping sensitive information from would-be terrorists.”
In a voice that was, as Boxer observed, devoid of “any type of shock or desire to move forward,” Breen gave a ten-minute testimony about how the EPA examines risks with no mention of the West, Texas explosion. His remarks were rather steeped in bureacreatic language that belied any sense of the dangers Americans are routinely exposed to.
When Boxer asked why the EPA had yet to carry out the recommendations about reactive chemicals, Breen responded that the CBS had not “explicitly” called for ammonium nitrate to be placed on the list of reactive chemicals. When the senator asked him for a timeframe clarifying when the EPA would, at long last, implement safety regulations, Breen said that we still “need to understand the issue better” — a puzzling statement given that, during the testimony, Breen himself said that the EPA had issued a warning in December 1997 that an ammonium nitrate fire in an enclosed space could lead to an explosion.
As Boxer replied: “You’ve done nothing in terms of your risk management plan. You’re taking credit for something that happened in the last century.”
Chemical safety experts have made it clear that the explosion in West, Texas, could have been avoided. We know what chemicals are hazardous and what conditions are more likely to be dangerous to store them in. Yet the EPA has more than dragged its feet, even while knowing for a long time about the hazards of ammonium nitrate and other chemicals. Founded in 1970 at a time when the public was full of “elevated concern about environmental pollution,” the EPA needs to stop reminding us of its historical accomplishments and zoom forward to address the very pressing, extremely urgent threats to our health and safety today.
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