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Obama’s chemical safety plan ‘disappointing’

An Obama administration report on chemical plant safety outlines some potentially significant reforms, but offers few concrete details or clear timelines for how federal agencies will try to stop a string of major accidents around the country.

The report, from a work group of various agencies, suggests that the Labor Department and the Environmental Protection Agency will consider tougher accident-prevention efforts but provides no firm timelines for when OSHA or the EPA might actually put any new rules into effect.

White House officials downplayed the work group findings, quietly releasing them on a Friday, with no fanfare — in a week the administration went all out to promote new climate-change rules from the EPA — and with only a blog post on a government website to highlight the group’s recommendations.

“We want to underscore that this report is a milestone, not an endpoint,” stated the blog post, published under the names of officials from the EPA, OSHA and the Department of Homeland Security. “While the report describes many activities already undertaken to improve chemical facility safety and security, it also makes clear that much additional work is necessary to implement the consolidated action plan.”

Last August, President Obama called for improvements to the nation’s chemical safety efforts, issuing an executive order that formed the work group after an April 2013 explosion and fire at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, killed 15 people, injured hundreds of people and flattened part of the town.

A chart included in the report issued Friday describes 27 “significant incidents” in the past five years that have killed 75 people and caused “extensive consequences for workplaces and communities.”

Among those incidents are the January 2010 phosgene leak that killed a DuPont Co. Belle plant worker and a December 2010 explosion and fire that killed three workers at the Al Solutions metals recycling facility in New Cumberland. The list ended in June 2013, so it doesn’t include the January chemical leak at Freedom Industries, in Charleston. But the report does say federal officials plan to work with states on unspecified measures “to improve Safe Drinking Water Act measures to prevent and prepare for chemical spills.”

Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, has said, “the United States is facing an industrial chemical safety crisis.” The CSB, which investigates accidents and recommends reforms, has urged regulatory agencies and industry to adopt the “safety case” approach, which requires companies to write reports explaining how major hazards are controlled and risks are reduced.

The new report appears to dismiss the CSB’s proposal, saying that “nearly all comments received regarding the adoption of the safety case regulatory model were negative.” The report did not mention that the CSB’s proposal received backing from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

In the new report, federal agencies say they have begun and will continue working to strengthen community planning and emergency preparedness, enhance coordination among agencies, improve data management, modernize regulations, and “incorporate stakeholder feedback and develop best practices.”

The report won praise from Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.

“To avoid another tragedy like the West, Texas, explosion, we must improve coordination between federal, state and local agencies, enhance information sharing and modernize safeguards at chemical facilities,” Boxer said in a statement. “This report is an important step in the process of ensuring that the nation’s chemical facilities are safer and more secure.”

Boxer said she will schedule a committee hearing on the report “to make sure that solutions are put in place to protect communities across the nation.”

The American Chemistry Council, an industry group, did not respond to a request for comment for this report.

The Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, which represents more than 100 environmental justice, labor, public health, national security and environmental organizations, said it is pleased with some of the report’s recommendations, but that “if the Obama Administration is serious about protecting workers and communities, the president must stand up for prevention requirements that include safer chemicals and processes.

“The special interests that have blocked chemical facility disaster prevention policies for the last 30 years have had their way long enough,” the coalition said. “It is time for the President and federal agencies to move forward with strong and enforceable safeguards that prioritize the safety of the workers and communities most at risk.”

Citizen groups had especially hoped to see the report recommend that the administration take action to require industry to use “inherently safer technologies,” that involve using less dangerous materials or safer production processes. The Obama report said only that the EPA and OSHA would issue safety warnings and voluntary guidance, and “will consider requirements to incorporate safer technologies or process safety alternatives.”

“[The] EPA and OSHA are also considering other avenues available to reinforce and further spread the use of safer technology and alternatives in managing chemical risk throughout industry,” the report said. “Such options include a partnership with industry in order to encourage such approaches through existing stewardship programs, work with industry on safer technology and alternatives-inherent safety clearinghouse, and recognition programs.”

On two potential regulatory initiatives that citizen and labor groups have been most closely following, the new report appears to offer little real progress.

First, the longstanding proposal for OSHA to toughen its “process safety management” rules for industrial facilities is not listed as moving to the stage of issuing a proposed rule. Instead, OSHA said that, within a year, agency officials would convene a meeting to determine the potential impacts on small businesses under the Small Business Regulatory Flexibility Act. Since at least 2009, OSHA has been working on a new rule to prevent combustible dust explosions, and agency officials have repeatedly put off that rulemaking in favor of a similar small business meeting, which has been repeatedly delayed.

Second, the EPA plans to begin rulemaking on improving its “risk management program” rule, an action safety advocates have been seeking for years. But the EPA is not moving yet to a proposed rule and will instead publish a “request for information” — a preliminary stage in the process of rewriting the rule — sometime this summer. The report said the EPA might propose a rule next year, and could finalize one in 2016, “subject to any timing adjustments that may be necessitated by new information.”

Rick Hind, who follows chemical plant safety issues for Greenpeace, said the work group report’s discussion of OSHA and EPA rule changes “reminds me of how students often react when they get an essay question on an exam and spend most of their answer repeating the question.”

“There are some helpful signs,” Hind said, “but it’s disappointing.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at or 304-348-1702.

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