Obama orders formation of interagency chemical safety working group

Aug. 12, 2013
US President Barack Obama issued an executive order on Aug. 1 forming a federal interagency chemical safety and security working group in response to recent accidents.

US President Barack Obama issued an executive order on Aug. 1 forming a federal interagency chemical safety and security working group in response to recent accidents. The president's action came as witnesses told a US House subcommittee that chemical firms and regulatory agencies already are trying to improve safety and security in the chemical workplace and surrounding communities.

Obama acknowledged in his order that the federal government already has developed and implemented numerous programs aimed at reducing the safety risks and security risks associated with hazardous chemicals. "However, additional measures can be taken by executive departments and agencies with regulatory authority to further improve chemical facility safety and security in coordination with owners and operators," he said.

He ordered the formation of a chemical safety and security working group co-chaired by US Department of Homeland Security Sec. Janet A. Napolitano, Department of Labor Sec. Thomas E. Perez, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, or their immediate deputies. The working group will include leaders or top deputies from the US Departments of Justice, Agriculture, and Transportation, and consult with other federal agencies and departments. It will meet at least quarterly.

Obama's order also identified the need to enhance federal regulatory coordination; improve communications with state, tribal, and local governments; enhance information collection and sharing; modernize policies, standards, and regulations, and identify best practices.

US Chemical Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso applauded the president's action. "Incidents CSB has been investigating, such as the recent tragic explosion and fire in West, Tex., 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," he said on Aug. 1.

American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers officials were studying the executive order and had no immediate comment, a spokeswoman told OGJ.

Revived concerns

Chemical safety concerns were revived after a fertilizer plant explosion on Apr. 17 in the Texas town of West killed at least 14 people and injured more than 200 others. The Government Accountability Office reported in April that DHS's Infrastructure Safety Compliance Division (ISCD) has assigned about 3,500 high-risk chemical plants to risk-based tiers since 2007. But its approach does not consider all consequences, threats, and vulnerabilities from a terrorist attack, Stephen L. Caldwell, GAO's Homeland Security and Justice director, told the House Homeland Security Committee's Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies Subcommittee.

ISCD has begun to review its security plan review process, but this could take years although the division is examining how it could accelerate the process, he said in his written testimony on Aug 1.

Federal regulation under DHS's Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) has made significant progress in the last year, according to David Wulf, director of DHS's Infrastructure Safety Compliance Division. "We feel strongly that our private sector partners are key to our efforts to enhance data sharing, increase cross-training, and identify areas for possible regulatory changes as well as identifying possible gaps in existing statutory authorities," he said in his written statement.

"Since the West, Tex., tragedy, we have engaged with numerous members of industry and all have agreed that we must work together to prevent future incidents," he continued. "Industry has offered to spread our message and do [its] part to promote safety and security at chemical facilities."

The American Chemistry Council already has an aggressive safety and security improvement culture, but the facility in Texas was an "outlier site" which was not part of an industry association or program or a participant in local emergency planning committees, noted Timothy J. Scott, Dow Chemical Co.'s chief security officer, in his written statement.

"There are regulations in place at both the state and federal levels that require the submission of data relative to chemicals of interest and quantities on site that would have identified this facility as a potentially high-risk site," Scott said. "Compliance and enforcement of these existing regulations is needed." ACC and Dow have called for legislation to bring such sites into compliance, he said.