Obama Orders Review of Chemical Plant Safety Procedures

President Obama, on August 1, issued Executive Order 13650 mandating "additional measures by executive departments and agencies with regulatory authority to further improve chemical facility safety and security in coordination with owners and operators." (CLICK HERE to read the full Executive Order)

This directive is the culmination of efforts to determine the causes of the explosions at West (TX) Fertilizer Company on April 17, 2013, and the Williams Olefins plant in Geismar, Louisiana, on June 13, 2013.

CSB chairman testifies before Congressional Subcommittee

On June 27, 2013, Rafael Moure-Eraso, Ph.D., chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Among the points concerning oversight of these plants made in his remarks were the following:

-- The West Fertilizer and Williams Olefins explosions are tragedies of the kind that should be prevented.

-- Ammonium nitrate (AN) fertilizer storage is covered by "U.S. safety standards and guidance that have many large holes including the use of combustible wooden buildings and wooden storage bins; sprinklers generally not being required; and no federal, state, or local rules that restrict storing large amounts of AN near homes, schools, and hospitals."

-- Although there are some useful provisions relative to AN in the voluntary fire codes, Texas and most of its counties have no fire code. For West, these fire code provisions were strictly voluntary, and West Fertilizer did not participate. The investigation showed that combustible seeds were stored near the AN and were not separated by any fire-resistant partition.

-- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has some similar provisions for AN fertilizer in its Explosives Standard 1910.109. However, OSHA "has not focused extensively on AN storage and hadn't inspected West since 1985."

Moure-Eraso noted the following: "Other nations have gone much further than the United States on AN safety. The United Kingdom recommends dedicated, noncombustible storage buildings and noncombustible bins. The U.S. manufacturer CF Industries, recommends the same and urges sprinklers as well. But the fertilizer industry tells us that U.S. sites commonly store AN in wooden buildings and bins-- even near homes, schools, or other vulnerable facilities. This situation must be addressed."

-- Facilities like West fall outside existing federal process safety standards, developed in the 1990s, and are list-based. "AN would likely have been included if the EPA had adopted the CSB's 2002 recommendation to cover reactive chemicals under its Risk Management Program (RMP). However, the modestly sized RMP program already covers large refineries and petrochemical sites, including Williams Olefins, and yet we still see serious accidents."

-- He said that when it comes to process safety, EPA and OSHA resources are under duress." He cited the need for modernized regulations and more inspection and prevention.


In the meantime, Moure-Eraso suggested the "encouraging alternatives to the current situation":

- "Following the Chevron refinery fire last year, and acting upon CSB recommendations, California is poised to triple the number of dedicated process safety inspectors ... funded by industry fees."

- Another promising approach is the'‘safety cas'’ successfully used in other nations, which insurers say have much lower petrochemical accident rates than we do. Companies identify and commit to follow the best safety standards from around the world, subject to approval and oversight by a competent, well-funded regulator. Many experts believe this is the best safety regime for complex, technological industries instead of the U.S. system that calls on a prescriptive and often outdated rule book.

CSB investigation information is available at Williams Olefins Plant Explosion and Fire and West Fertilizer Explosion and Fire.

CSB Findings Relative to Codes and Standards

The above recommendations were based on observations the CSB had made in its preliminary investigation of the explosions. Following are some investigatory findings that pertain to codes and standards.

-- Some safety provisions of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the International Code Council (ICC) for AN are "quite old and appear to be confusing or contradictory, even to code experts, and are in need of a comprehensive review in light of the West disaster and other recent accidents."

-- The existing fire codes do contain some useful provisions; for example, they do require a fire resistant barrier between AN and any stored flammable or combustible materials and have provisions to avoid AN confinement and promote ventilation during fire conditions, but even the most current NFPA 400 standard, Hazardous Materials Code, 2013 edition, allows AN to be stored in wooden buildings and in wooden bins and does not mandate automatic sprinkler systems unless more than 2,500 tons of AN is being stored--vastly more than the approximately 30 tons that devastated much of the town of West.

In addition, the standard contains a "grandfathering" provision that allows existing buildings that were constructed prior to code adoption and fail to meet all of its provisions to continue in use.

-- Texas has not adopted a statewide fire code, and state law actually prohibits most smaller rural counties from adopting a fire code ... The West Fertilizer facility was not required to follow any NFPA or ICC recommendations for the storage of AN.

-- Although some U.S. distributors have constructed fire-resistant concrete structures for storing AN, fertilizer industry officials have reported to the CSB that wooden buildings are still the norm for the distribution of AN fertilizer across the United States.

-- The federal OSHA standard for "Explosives and Blasting Agents" (29 CFR 1910.109) does have requirements for AN fertilizer; its provisions are similar to those in the

NFPA codes. Unlike the NFPA codes, which West was not legally required to follow under any fire code, the OSHA standard would have applied. Like NFPA, however, the OSHA standard does not prohibit wooden bins or wooden construction and does not require sprinklers unless more than 2,500 tons of AN is present. However, OSHA public records indicate that OSHA last inspected the facility in 1985 and no citations were issued under the "Explosives and Blasting Agents" standard.

-- OSHA's Process Safety Management standard (29 CFR 1910.119) or PSM was adopted in 1992 and is designed to prevent catastrophic workplace incidents involving highly hazardous chemicals. PSM requires companies to have a variety of management elements to prevent catastrophic incidents, such as conducting hazard analyses and developing emergency plans. AN is not, however, one of the listed chemicals that triggers PSM coverage. The PSM standard also contains an exemption for retail facilities.

-- The EP'’s Risk Management Program rule (40 CFR Part 68) or RMP was adopted in 1996 and is designed to prevent catastrophic offsite and environmental damage from extremely hazardous substances. As the name suggests, the rule requires covered facilities to develop a Risk Management Plan (RMP) , implement various safety programs, and analyze offsite consequences from potential accidents. Once again, however, AN is not one of the listed chemicals that triggers RMP coverage. West Fertilizer was RMP-covered because of its stored ammonia, and the compan'’s offsite consequence analysis considered only the possibility of an ammonia leak, not an explosion of AN.

-- OSHA considered adding AN along with other highly reactive chemicals to its list of PSM-covered substances in the late 1990s but shelved this proposal in 2001. In developing the RMP regulation, the EPA did not explicitly include explosives or reactive chemicals in the list of covered chemicals. In 2002, the CSB issued a study on reactive hazards, identifying 167 prior reactive incidents (including a 1994 explosion at an AN manufacturer). CSB recommended that both OSHA and EPA expand their standards to include reactive chemicals and hazards. However, neither agency has yet acted on the recommendations.

-- No federal, state, or local standards have been identified that restrict the siting of AN storage facilities in the vicinity of homes, schools, businesses, and health care facilities.

-- West volunteer firefighters were not made aware of the explosion hazard from the AN stored at West Fertilizer and were caught in har'’s way when the blast occurred. NFPA recommends that firefighters evacuate from AN fires of "massive and uncontrollable proportions."

Federal DOT guidance contained in the Emergency Response Guidebook, which is widely used by firefighters, suggests fighting even large AN fertilizer fires by "flood[ing] the area with water from a distance." However, the response guidance appears to be vague since terms such as "massive," "uncontrollable," "large," and "distance" are not clearly defined. All of these provisions should be reviewed and harmonized in light of the West disaster to ensure that firefighters are adequately protected and are not put in danger protecting property alone.

-- While U.S. standards for AN have apparently remained static for decades, other countries have more rigorous standards covering both storage and siting of nearby buildings. For example, the U.K'’s Health and Safety Executive states in

guidance dating back to 1996 that "AN should normally be stored in single-story, dedicated, well-ventilated buildings that are constructed from materials that will not burn, such as concrete, bricks, or steel." The U.K. guidance calls for storage bays "constructed of a material that does not burn, preferably concrete."

-- CF Industries, a principal manufacturer of AN that was one of the suppliers to West, also recommends more rigorous safeguards in its material safety data sheet (MSDS) for the chemical. In the section entitled "Handling and Storage," CF recommends that'‘Storage construction should be of non-combustible materials and preferably equipped with an automatic sprinkler system'’ Although companies are required to issue MSDSs, the recipients of this information like West Fertilizer are not obligated to follow the recommended safety precautions. West lacked these safeguards.

-- The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has regulations for AN used as an explosive, but they do not apply to AN used as fertilizer. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has reporting requirements for companies that have a threshold amount of fertilizer grade AN. However, the authority of DHS is to require security measures to protect against theft, diversion, or other intentional acts; DHS does not regulate the safety of AN to prevent conditions leading to accidental detonation.

-- The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA) contains an exemption from hazardous chemical reporting for'‘fertilizer held for sale by a retailer to the ultimate customer'’ The EPA has interpreted this provision as not applying to firms like West that make custom blends of bulk fertilizer for customer'’ use. In 2012, West Fertilizer filed an EPCRA Tier II report with the McLennan County Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC). West reported the presence of up to 270 tons of AN, as well as anhydrous ammonia, at the site. The company did not provide the LEPC or the West Fire Department with an AN MSDS indicating the materia'’s hazards, nor does EPCRA automatically require that information to be provided. There is no indication that Wes'’s filing with local authorities resulted in an effort to plan for an AN emergency.

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