After explosion, Obama issues order to improve oversight of chemicals

 

By Maria Recio McClatchy Washington Bureau

The White House issued an executive order Thursday to improve safety and security at chemical facilities in the wake of the explosion last April at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that killed 15 people and created a fireball that leveled much of the town.

The order calls for increased coordination among federal agencies that oversee chemical facilities, a move the industry welcomed. But more pressing to Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other state elected officials is a pending request for the White House to overrule the Federal Emergency Management Agency and issue a major disaster declaration for the area, providing more than $35 million in additional federal assistance.

“Chemicals and the facilities that manufacture, store, distribute and use them are essential to our economy,” a statement from the White House press secretary said. “However, 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.”

The White House said that while the cause of the explosion of ammonium nitrate stored at the West Chemical and Fertilizer Co. is still under investigation, the government would take “common-sense steps” to improve how federal agencies monitor the safety and security of hazardous chemicals nationwide.

The executive order directs the government to improve operational coordination across the number of agencies that oversee chemical plant operations and to improve information sharing, modernize policies and work with all the affected parties to develop best practices for the industry.

Kathy Mathers, a spokeswoman for the Fertilizer Institute, which represents retailers and manufacturers, said: “We support the executive order. Is there duplication among agencies? Are there gaps in regulations? The president’s action today is a positive step.”

But Perry spokesman Josh Havens said: “The most important thing to the people of West, Texas, right now is getting that community back on its feet as quickly as possible, and approving the state’s appeal for a major disaster declaration is the more appropriate announcement the White House needs to be making at this time.”

Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, whose district includes the town of West, welcomed the executive order but emphasized that he and most of the Texas congressional delegation were pushing for the White House to deal with the damage from the explosion.

“It’s obvious we have to have a better level of understanding and coordination among the agencies and with all the folks who have a role to play,” Flores said in an interview. “We know enough that we know where the gaps are.”

Flores is focused on Perry’s appeal of FEMA’s decision in June not to designate the West explosion a major disaster since it didn’t have the widespread impact of natural disasters such as tornadoes or hurricanes. He authored a bipartisan letter to the White House – signed by 35 of the 38 lawmakers who represent Texas in Congress – supporting Perry’s request for reconsideration.

“During the memorial service for the first responders killed in the line of duty, President Obama himself said, ‘Your country will remain ever ready to help you recover, and rebuild, and reclaim your community,’” Flores said. “It is our hope that the president will honor his commitment.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, said: “The massive explosion at the plant in the community of West, Texas, killed 15 people and leveled hundreds of structures, including three of the town’s four schools.”

“Over the past few years, security measures have been revamped in shipping ports, air travel and government buildings; chemical plants should be treated no differently. In the post-September 11th world, the role of government in protecting its people has never been more important.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said: “Knowing the president’s deep commitment to the people of West, Texas, after the tragic explosion of ammonium nitrate, I informed him last week of specific ideas that emanated from a hearing I chaired at the Environment and Public Works Committee. I couldn’t be more gratified to learn today that he is taking executive action to follow through on the very solutions that were discussed and that I promised to pursue.”

The executive order directs the Department of Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Labor to establish a Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group to improve coordination among federal, state and local agencies, to review the effectiveness of chemical safety programs and to develop regulatory and legislative solutions.

Email: mrecio@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @maria_e_recio

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