The fatal explosion of a Texas fertilizer plant is unlikely to boost environmentalists' calls for EPA to require safer chemicals at industrial plants because there are few alternatives to the substances involved in the explosion, although advocates say the incident highlights a need for additional safety practices, including enhanced reporting of, and limits on, chemicals stored on site, and buffer zones between facilities and residential areas.
An April 17 fire at the West Fertilizer Co. plant, located within several thousand feet of a middle school and a nursing home in West, TX, caused ammonium nitrate to explode, killing more than a dozen people, including many first responders, and wounding an estimated 200. The incident has prompted an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and calls for EPA and other regulators to strengthen their oversight of plants that use and store large volumes of hazardous substances on site.
"We have a duty to learn from this disaster, not only for the town of West, but for the millions of Americans across the country who live near similar facilities," U.S. Public Interest Research Groups said in a statement, noting that almost 500 chemical facilities each put 100,000 people at risk of death or illness due to chemical exposure.
For example, a source with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) says video of the fire that a nearby resident filmed just before the ammonium nitrate tanks exploded shows that neighboring communities must be better informed of risks, and that EPA should strengthen its risk management plan (RMP) requirements, which requires reporting of chemicals and emergency response plans, so that first responders and residents are more aware of the risks at industrial facilities.
When the fertilizer plant in West, TX, caught fire, nearby residents should have been fleeing, not filming, the source says. "If you have that kind of time bomb in your community, you should know if something goes wrong, get the hell out."
While the West Fertilizer Co. plant had reported to EPA on its store of anhydrous ammonia, the plant did not report that highly explosive ammonium nitrate was also on site because such reporting is not required by the agency's RMP rules.
But one environmentalist says EPA has the authority to add the substance to the list of chemicals that require RMP reporting.
The call for tougher safety measures at industrial plants echoes a January report from Greenpeace and dozens of environmental groups that reiterated the groups' 2012 petition to EPA to use its existing authority under the general duty clause of the Clean Air Act (CAA) to mandate inherently safer technologies (IST), a range of measures that includes switching to alternate chemicals where feasible as well as changes to how chemicals are handled and stored at plants across the country.
The January Greenpeace report relied on data from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) to show that an accident or terrorist attack at an industrial plant could kill or injure thousands of workers and nearby residents unless a facility uses IST -- which in many cases would mean switching to chemicals that would pose less of a risk in the event of their release following an attack, though it could also mean other process changes.
There are 12,440 facilities nationwide that use large quantities of chemicals and put people at risk, Greenpeace said citing a CRS report. In case of an attack or accident, 89 of those facilities could affect 1 million people, while 384 facilities would put more than 100,000 people at risk and more than 2,000 facilities would put more than 10,000 people at risk.
Environmentalists, in their push for EPA to mandate IST, have repeatedly cited the proximity of many industrial facilities to residential neighborhoods as cause for concern, and Greenpeace raised the need for buffer zones in a blog posted two days after the explosion. "This incident also highlights the importance of stronger oversight to protect communities, workers, and first responders from the catastrophic risks of these dangerous facilities," John Deans, of Greenpeace, wrote April 19. "These threats could be reduced by requiring facilities to use safer technologies whenever feasible."
But a source with the coalition of environmentalists that petitioned EPA to require IST says alternative chemicals are only one of a variety of steps that could reduce the consequences of an accidental release or terrorist attack.
"When safer [chemical] alternatives are available they should use them," the source says. "And if there isn't then there should be a buffer zone, and here it is clearly not enough."
In cases where EPA can not mandate use of safer technologies, advocates say the agency should still strengthen its rules. The PEER source, for example, says, "Facilities that are inherently hazardous like this that have extremely high risks should not be near homes," although the source notes that few communities are considering moving industrial plants away from residential neighborhoods even though that measure could save lives.
The source also says EPA should take a tougher look at the emergency response plans required in RMP reporting for facilities that have been cited for violations in the past. The West Fertilizer Co. was built in 1962 before state and federal air permitting requirements and did not have to obtain authorization for air emissions until 2004, according to an April 18 Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) statement. Texas regulators investigated the plant in 2006 and issued a notice of violation, TCEQ says. But another state investigation later that year found no concerns.
The American Chemistry Council has said many chemical plants already consider product or process changes where feasible and that government mandated IST is unnecessary. Although the fertilizer plant is not an ACC member, the group said in a statement to Inside EPA that EPA considered mandating IST in 1996 and found the potential benefits lacking, in part because companies generally consider process alternatives to avoid more costly management controls that dangerous products and practices require.
Meanwhile, Sen. Frank Launtenberg (D-NJ), while expressing his condolences for the families of those killed or injured by the explosion, said April 18 that the incident illustrates the need to pass his legislation "to ensure that chemical plants use the safest chemicals and processes available."
The senator added, "Communities located near chemical facilities deserve to know that all reasonable steps are being taken to reduce the risk of a chemical explosion. We need to pass my legislation to require facilities to thoroughly review risk and help us move toward more secure plants and safer communities."
Lautenberg earlier this year reintroduced his legislation aimed at securing chemical facilities as well as wastewater and drinking water plants by requiring IST and assessing vulnerability to potential attack, although observers say they doubt the bills, S. 67 and S. 68, will get very far as they lack companion legislation in the House and failed to make it out of committee in 2010 and 2011.
While environmentalists are pushing for increased use of federal authority to require safety measures, industry and some legislators are countering the push for IST. Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) Feb. 28 reintroduced his bill, H.R. 888, which largely mirrors his unsuccessful legislation from the 112th Congress aiming to block EPA regulation of chemical plants' security. But the new bill includes some additions, including the prohibition on IST mandates - such as manufacturing changes to reduce risk - at any facilities subject to the general duty risk planning provisions of section 112(r) of the air law.