Official White House photos by Pete Souza
While the cause of the West Texas fertilizer plant explosion and fire still is under investigation it is clear that the aim of the new executive order regarding chemical safety is to reduce the number of chemical incidents that cause injuries and fatalities to workers and residents in the communities surrounding such facilities

Chemical Safety: Who’s Responsible for What?

Aug. 5, 2013
With the signing of a new Executive Order to improve the safety and security of chemical facilities and reduce the risks of hazardous chemicals to workers and communities, a scorecard is needed to understand the different responsibilities of federal agencies when it comes to chemical safety.

The explosion and fire at a fertilizer factory in West, Texas, that decimated not only the facility but surrounding homes and buildings, along with a July train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec that killed 50 people in a series of explosions and a train derailment near Baton Rouge, Louisiana August 5 that resulted in hundreds of people being evacuated have caused increased scrutiny on chemical safety by the federal government. The recently signed Executive Order on Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security focuses not on chemical safety, but on communication and coordination between federal, state, tribal and local governments. A scorecard is needed to understand who is responsible for what in terms of chemical safety.

Federal agencies implement a number of programs to help prevent chemical facility accidents, reduce risks of terrorist attacks on chemical facilities, protect chemical facility workers, collect and share relevant information with the public and decision makers and prepare communities and local, tribal, and state first-responders to respond to potential large-scale accidents.  State, local and tribal authorities also have critical responsibilities in managing risks from chemical facility accidents through setting and enforcing requirements for zoning, siting and emergency response and planning. 

The federal government has a number of regulatory programs related to the safe and secure transportation of chemicals across all modes of transportation, including highway, rail, aviation, maritime and pipeline. However, the primary federal agencies and programs aimed at addressing chemical safety and security at chemical facilities are:

EPA – EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP), established under the Clean Air Act, is aimed at reducing chemical risk at the local level.  EPA’s rules require owners and operators of a facility that manufactures, uses, stores or otherwise handles certain listed flammable and toxic substances to develop a risk management program that includes hazard assessment (including an evaluation of worst-case and alternative accidental release scenarios), prevention mechanisms and emergency response measures. Facilities submit information regarding their risk management program or plan (RPM) to EPA. RMP information helps local fire, police and emergency response personnel prepare for and respond to chemical accidents, while allowing citizens to understand chemical hazards in their communities. EPA has focused its chemical plant safety inspection and enforcement efforts on the highest risk facilities. 

EPA also implements the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA), which was designed to promote emergency planning and preparedness at the state, local and tribal levels. EPCRA helps ensure local communities and first responders have information on potential chemical hazards within their communities in order to develop community emergency response plans. Under EPCRA, facilities with extremely hazardous chemicals must notify the state emergency response commission or tribal emergency response committees (TERCs) and local emergency planning committee (LEPC), as well as participate in local emergency planning activities. LEPCs and TERCs are then responsible for developing a community emergency response plan. 

Department of Labor/OSHA – OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) standard sets requirements for the management of highly hazardous substances to prevent and mitigate the catastrophic releases of flammable, explosive, reactive and toxic chemicals that may endanger workers. The PSM standard covers the manufacturing of explosives and processes involving threshold quantities of flammable liquids and flammable gasses, as well as 137 other highly hazardous chemicals.

In 2011, OSHA launched its Chemical Plant National Emphasis Program (NEP) to conduct focused inspections at randomly selected facilities among work sites likely to have highly hazardous chemicals in quantities covered by the PSM standard.  Under this program, OSHA has corrected serious safety issues through approximately 350 inspections and the issuance of 1,325 violations.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS)/National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) – DHS/NPPD is responsible for implementing Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS), the federal government’s primary regulatory authority for security of chemicals at stationary facilities. CFATS is helping make the nation more secure by requiring high-risk chemical facilities to develop and implement security plans that meet eighteen risk-based performance standards established by the department. Additionally, since the program’s inception, more than 3,000 facilities voluntarily have removed or reduced the onsite quantity of chemicals of interest to the point that the facilities are no longer considered high-risk.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS)/United States Coast Guard (USCG) – USCG is responsible for maritime security under the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA), 46 U.S.C. § 70101, et seq., which includes authority over certain port facilities that use, store or transport chemicals or engage in other chemical-related activities.

MTSA reinforces the national and global importance of security for the marine transportation system, and provides a framework for ensuring the safety of maritime commerce and our domestic ports. MTSA’s key requirement is to prevent a maritime transportation security incident (TSI) – defined as any incident that results in a significant loss of life, environmental damage, transportation system disruption or economic disruptions to a particular area. Within the maritime venue, preventing TSI's has been a core mission of the Coast Guard since its beginning.

Department of Justice/Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (DOJ/ATF) – ATF is responsible for enforcing federal explosives laws that govern commerce in explosives in the United States including licensing, storage, record keeping and conduct of business. ATF conducts inspections of federal explosives licensees who manufacture, import, sell or store explosives in the United States to ensure explosives are managed in accordance with federal law. In FY 2012, ATF conducted 5,390 explosives inspections resulting in approximately 400 reports of violations.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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