Ag Retailers: Showing Commitment To Safety To Everyone

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Less than a month into the New Year, my travel has already spanned a large section of the country. From the heart of the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, I am working on a project that has allowed me to visit several retail dealers to hear first-hand about the good work that they are doing to educate and further engage with emergency responders. The evidence and strength of those relationships throughout the entire industry will be critical in 2014.

In the wake of last April’s explosion at the West Fertilizer facility, this is an issue of increasing importance for the nation’s retailers. The loss of 15 lives on April 17, 2013, caused policymakers, members of the media and the general public to question our commitment to the safety and security of those individuals who will respond in the event of an accident at a retail facility. Each of these audiences can have significant influence on your business; together they can serve as an extremely powerful voice for change.

In response to the West explosion, President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order in August calling on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the EPA and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to review safety and security regulations that apply to ammonium nitrate and other chemicals. The order directed these federal agencies to better coordinate developing and enforcing regulations and to review certain regulations to determine if they should be amended.

The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) has responded to the Exe­cutive Order by expressing support for additional coordination between state and federal agencies, cross referencing databases and federal coordination on inspections to minimize the time that retailers like you spend on regulatory compliance. We are participating in listening sessions during which we have told the agencies that we support finalization of the Ammonium Nitrate Security Program at DHS and long-term reauthorization of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program.

Due to a regulatory exclusion, fertilizer retailers are not required to report to emergency planners under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA). Since the West explosion, we have gone on record in support of removal of this exclusion and we believe there should be comprehensive reporting of hazardous chemicals stored on site to local emergency planning commissions and that all in the industry should work with local fire departments. We have, however, requested that this reporting requirement should be limited to hazardous chemicals.

Reaching Out

As I just noted, an integral part of compliance with EPCRA is outreach to local emergency responders. Most retailers know that when you invite firefighters, HAZMAT teams, EMTs and others into your facilities, they acquire a clear understanding of the products you handle and store, the physical layout of your facility and best practices for emergency response. If my retail visits are any indication, this activity is built into the DNA of many retail businesses. In fact, several of the retailers I spoke to either were emergency responders or had one or several volunteer firefighters on staff. I was tremendously impressed to see the conviction and sincerity with which they spoke about this dual role.

Over the past nine months, retailers’ concern for first responders has been questioned and our perceived efforts have been criticized by lawmakers and the media. It’s likely that this criticism does not come from ill will but rather from unfamiliarity with your business and the strength of your outreach efforts. In most instances, correcting this misperception can be easily accomplished. When you hold an open house for emergency responders, be sure that your community, local regulatory officials and elected officials know about it. Invite local emergency responders, newspaper reporters and bloggers to attend an open house, take photos to get a firsthand account about your commitment to safety and security. Pick a strategy that works best for you, your business and your community.

Given the legislative and regulatory environment in Washington, DC, and a public that is questioning our commitment to worker and community safety, we need retailers to speak out. You have a tremendous story to tell.

Mathers is director, public affairs for The Fertilizer Institute, Washington, DC.

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