On Aug 1 President Barack Obama signed a new Executive Order to improve the safety and security of chemical facilities and reduce the risks of hazardous chemicals to workers and communities Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

On Aug. 1, President Barack Obama signed a new Executive Order to improve the safety and security of chemical facilities and reduce the risks of hazardous chemicals to workers and communities.

President Obama Issues Executive Order Aimed at Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security

Recent incidents such as the devastating explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas in April are tragic reminders that the handling and storage of chemicals present serious risks that must be addressed.

President Barack Obama on Aug. 1 signed an Executive Order to improve the safety and security of chemical facilities and reduce the risks of hazardous chemicals to workers and communities. A statement from the White House noted that while chemicals and the facilities that manufacture, store, distribute and use them are essential to our economy, recent events such as the West explosion and chemical spills are requiring further action.

“Incidents the CSB has been investigating, such as the recent tragic explosion and fire in West, Texas, have revealed serious gaps in the prevention of accidents and in response preparations for major chemical releases by companies and government authorities, leaving Americans vulnerable,” said Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairperson of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

He added tht the West accident showed a “particularly glaring need” for comprehensive regulation of reactive chemical hazards and, in particular, ammonium nitrate.

“The destruction I personally saw there – the obliteration of homes, schools and businesses by an ammonium nitrate explosion – was almost beyond imagination,” Moure-Eraso recalled. “The loss of life was horrible. It is my hope that this Executive Order will spur development of regulation and enforcement for the safe handling of ammonium nitrate and other gaps in the coverage of reactive hazards that the CSB has previously identified to help prevent future incidents.”

While the cause of the Texas explosion is under investigation, President Obama is urging federal agencies and others to “take some common sense steps now to improve safety and security and build on federal agencies’ ongoing work to reduce the risks associated with hazardous chemicals.” 

The Executive Order on Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security directs the federal government to:

  • Modernize policies, regulations and standards;
  • Improve operational coordination with state and local partners;
  • Enhance federal agency coordination and information sharing; and
  • Work with stakeholders to identify best practices. 

Modernizing Policies, Regulations and Standards – The Executive Order directs federal agencies to work with stakeholders to improve chemical safety and security through agency programs, private sector initiatives, Federal guidance, standards, and regulations. For example, to reduce risks associated with ammonium nitrate, agencies will examine new options to address the safe and secure storage, handling and sale of this explosive chemical. Agencies also will determine if additional chemicals should be covered by existing federal regulatory programs, such as EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP), the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Chemical Facilities Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATs) and the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Process Safety Management Standard (PSM). In addition, agencies will consider whether to pursue an independent, high-level assessment of the U.S. approach to chemical facility risk management to identify additional recommendations for all levels of government and industry to reduce the risk of catastrophic chemical incidents in the future.

“I am encouraged that the Executive Order calls for the revision and strengthening of EPA’s Risk Management Program and OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard,” said Moure-Eraso. “The CSB has long urged such improvements, specifically that reactive hazards – such as ammonium nitrate – be more comprehensively regulated under RMP and PSM.”

Improving Operational Coordination – Federal, state, local and tribal governments have different responsibilities in addressing risks associated with chemical facilities, including response planning for potential emergencies. To improve the effectiveness and efficiency of risk management and response measures, the Executive Order charges federal agencies with improving coordination and information sharing with state and local governments. For example, the Executive Order requires federal agencies to develop a plan within 90 days that identifies ways to ensure state homeland security advisors, state emergency response commissions (SERCs), tribal emergency response commissions (TERCs), local emergency planning committees (LEPCs), tribal emergency planning committees (TEPCs), state regulators and first responders have ready access to key information in a useful format to prevent, prepare for and respond to chemical incidents.

Coordination and Information Sharing – Programs designed to improve the safety and security of chemical facilities through regulations, information reporting requirements, site inspections and voluntary partnerships are managed by multiple Federal agencies, including EPA, DHS, DOL and the Department of Justice (DOJ). To improve the collective performance of these federal programs, the Executive Order calls upon federal agencies to initiate innovative approaches for working together on a broad range of activities, such as identification of high-risk facilities, inspections, enforcement and incident investigation and follow up.

For example, the Executive Order requires that the federal agencies deploy a regional pilot program that will validate best practices and test innovative new methods for Federal interagency collaboration on chemical facility safety and security. Additionally, federal agencies specifically are directed to modernize the collection and sharing of chemical facility information to maximize the effectiveness of risk reduction efforts and reduce duplicative efforts.

Identify Best Practices – Many chemical facilities have taken steps to create safer work environments and reduce risks of chemical incidents to nearby communities. The Executive Order directs key federal agencies to convene a wide range of interested stakeholders, including representatives from industry; state, local and tribal governments; non-governmental organizations; and the first responder community to identify and share successes to date and best practices to reduce safety and security risks in the production and storage of potentially harmful chemicals, including through the use of safer alternatives, adoption of best practices and potential public-private partnerships.

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