Expert: West Fertilizer Was Preventable By Following OSHA Regulations

Senate Environment & Public Works (EPW) Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) came out swinging today at the Senate EPW hearing titled: “Oversight of Federal Risk Management and Emergency Planning Programs to Prevent and Address Chemical Threats, Including the Events Leading Up to the Explosions in West, TX and Geismar, LA”.

Senators participating in the hearing included Chairwoman Boxer, Ranking Member David Vitter (R-LA), Deb Fischer (R-NE), John Barrasso (R-WY), and John Boozman (R-AR).

The next congressional hearing will take place in August before the House Homeland Security Committee.

Top issues discussed at the hearing:

  • The West, TX plant was covered by a patchwork of regulations with some pretty large holes. Click here to view CSB Preliminary Findings on West Fertilizer Explosion.
  • CSB testified that West Fertilizer used a combustible (wooden) building with no sprinklers. Stored seed (organic material) next to AN with no firewall. Texas does not have fire code. Volunteer firefighters were not made aware of the risk that AN at the facility could explode – 12 firefighters and emergency responders were killed when AN suddenly detonated as they were fighting the initial fire. Other countries like the UK recommend that buildings and bins where AN store be noncombustible.
  • Dr. Sam Mannan, a chemical engineer, testified that if West Fertilizer followed OSHA regulations (29 CFR 109.1910(i)) (storage of AN – based on NFPA Code 490) the explosion likely would have been mitigated or prevented. He also pointed out that there should not be a duplication of regulations.
  • Adding “REACTIVE CHEMICALS” to EPA’s Risk Management Program including ammonium nitrate (AN). This recommendation is based upon a 2002 Chemical Safety Board report entitled ” Improving Reactive Hazard Management”.
  • EPA needs to update guidance, alerts and regulations for AN. It was pointed out at the hearing that EPA last issued guidance on AN was in December 1997.
  • EPA subpoena of the CSB West Fertilizer records causing a chilling effect for CSB to gather information from witnesses and industry. Information provided to CSB is supposed to remain confidential and not used in criminal or civil enforcement actions by other federal agencies.
  • EPA should use their “General Duty Clause” (GDC) authority to implement Inherently Safer Technology (IST) requirements on industry.
  • Rick Webre, Ascension Parish Office of Homeland Security (Louisiana), stated that “a well-managed LEPC is the most critical function that a community can perform to prevent, mitigate, respond to and recover from an industrial accident” and “I don’t believe that more legislation is the answer.” He also said that complexity results in failure on scene. “Creating one common operating procedure between the chemical industry, the local 911 center, Emergency Operations Center and the first responders on scene is absolutely critical. Simple, inexpensive, graphically displayed, two page standard operating procedures can accomplish this”, stated Webre.
  • Paul Orum, Consultant for Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, promoted IST and adding products like AN to EPA RMP. He also recommends electronic access to EPCRA Tier 2 reports. Orum indicated support for the ” agricultural chemicals security tax credit assists agricultural distributors with conventional security measures such as fences and lights; it should assist facilities that want to move locally to safer locations.” Note – The ARA-initiated Agricultural Chemicals Security Tax Credit (included in the 2008 Farm Bill) expired on Dec. 31, 2012.  ARA has requested Congress extend this tax credit.
  • Asked CSB about interactions with TFI and ARA. CSB Chairman said they were in discussions with the two groups and CSB thought the Fertilizer Code of Practice Initiative was a good self-policing system with third party audits to prevent the possibility of future mistakes. Fertilizer COP and other industry initiatives should be used to compliment the work done by federal regulators.
  • Fischer asked about the difference between manufacturing and fertilizer blending. CSB said that manufacturing is a chemical process, and West Fert received materials that had already gone through this chemical process. West Fertilizer was a bulk storage and distribution facility. CSB agreed there should be different recommendations for chemical process facilities and storage facilities.

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3 comments on “Expert: West Fertilizer Was Preventable By Following OSHA Regulations

  1. Not enough people or organizations truly understand the relationships between local, state, and federal regulations (IFC/IBC/IMC/NFPA/CFR), and yes, even the IZC (anyone ever hear of this?), and the interdependencies they share, if applied correctly, and not just with AN, especially when requesting inherently safer technologies and land use restrictions. In order to make any judgment on such an issue, one must have a very thorough understanding of how they work together as well as independently. For example, zoning and land use restrictions: The purpose of this code is to safeguard the health, property and public welfare by controlling the design, location, use or occupancy of all buildings and structures through the regulated and orderly development of land and land uses within this jurisdiction." "The IZC is intended to provide for the arrangement of compatible buildings and land uses and establish provisions for the location of all types of uses, in the interest of the social and economic welfare of the community." Section 302.1 covers minimum areas, and allows each jurisdiction to indicate the desired acreage for each zoning districts that they choose. I am not aware of any specific distance requirements to buildings in the IZC, however in the other "I" codes, based on various factors, there are specific distance requirements established. Section 305 of the IZC addresses conditional uses. These conditional uses require particular considerations as to their proper location to adjacent, established or intended uses, or to the planned growth of the community. The conditions controlling the locations and operation of such special uses are established by the applicable sections of this code, and again, available for jurisdictional amendments. Unfortunately, not many jurisdictions may be aware of this particular code and the benefits (including any jurisdictional amendments they choose) that can be gained through orderly and systematic development. This, could in a reality, could benefit the implementation of the RMP should AN become regulated as an EHS

  2. "Chemical safety expert Sam Mannan of Texas A&M University told the committee that an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspection could have prevented the disaster just by pouncing on how close a vast supply of explosive ammonium nitrate, stored in wood-framed bins, was kept to the seed area in a mostly wooden building." Is this truly a realistic, optimistic statement? Many can validate the inconsistencies among inspection agencies. The OSHA standard offers a 30' separation distance in lieu of a "fire wall;" however, if this distance was not physically possible, then the fire wall would be required (per OSHA). Who then, would provide oversight on its construction? Certainly not OSHA. How well does OSHA coordinate activities with the local building department? . Would the OSHA inspector also comment on the lack of sprinkler system or the inadequacy of fire hydrants in accordance with their own standards? Also doubtful as the ambiguity of fire hydrant requirements in OSHA does not make it possible for field verification, and the sprinkler system installation oversight is as ambiguous and poorly written as the other construction requirements in OSHA.

  3. Wait a minute! Does Federal Regulations in safety trump haphazard local codes? Will the responsible person, the individual making the big bucks because he has it all under control, stand and accept responsibility? The world waits and wonders. And in the meantime the destroyed families are still in shock. There are those that are pointing the finger at the government and trying to blame the Regulatory "establishment". Once again give them the responsibility but not the authority. Far too many have died. Hold the CEO accountable, put him in jail till the final decisions.

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