Government oversight examined after recent US plant explosions

Experts say enforcing existing laws would improve safety

The West Fertilizer Company, shown from the air, lies in ruins on April 18, 2013, in West, Texas.

Federal oversight of gas and chemical plants has been called into question after a series of dangerous explosions rocked facilities in Texas, Louisiana and Florida. The latest, which took place Monday at the Blue Rhino propane plant 40 miles northwest of Orlando, has left many Americans asking what can be done to prevent similar incidents from happening again.

Prior to this week’s incident in Florida, which left eight people injured, a deadly explosion tore through William Olefins Inc. Plant in Geismar, Louisiana on June 13, killing two workers and injuring dozens more. Before that, a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas on April 17 killed 15 people, injured hundreds and destroyed about 50 homes and other buildings.  

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said the events that occurred in West, Texas should serve as a "wake-up call" during comments she made at a Senate committee hearing in late June.  

In its preliminary findings, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) said the warehouse building and bins used to store ammonium nitrate fertilizer were made of combustible wood and in close proximity to flammable materials.

Despite that, the CSB said the National Fire Protection Association, which is a private organization that develops a fire codes widely applied throughout the country, allows ammonium nitrate fertilizer to be stored in wooden buildings and bins, and doesn’t mandate automatic sprinkler systems unless more than 2,500 tons of it is being kept at one location – much more than the 30 tons that caused so much destruction in Texas.

"Not only did the building lack fire protection systems such as automatic sprinklers, but current U.S. fire codes do not clearly require sprinklers in such buildings, leaving such decisions to the discretion of local authorities," the CSB said in a letter to Sen. Boxer. "Since the state of Texas and many Texas counties (including McLennan County where the West facility was located) have not adopted any mandatory fire code, it is not clear that sprinklers could have been required at West Fertilizer."

Another issue concerning Americans is the openness of government in disclosing information about chemical risk in communities where plants are located. Sean Moulton, director of Open Government Policy at the Center for Effective Government, told Al Jazeera that there has been a "blanket of secrecy" dating back to attacks of September 11, 2001 with regard to such information.

"It goes so far down that road that the federal government and even at the state level, they are very reluctant to disclose even basic information and the chemicals they store there," Moulton said. "If the community doesn’t have the information, it’s difficult to plan for emergence."

In regards to the explosion that occurred at the William Olefins Inc. Plant in Geismar, Louisiana – which involved a distillation tower that processed propylene, propane, and other highly flammable hydrocarbons, CSB said there was a "sudden catastrophic failure" with the facility’s heat exchanger and piping. The agency has yet to release any preliminary findings in relation to the Louisiana explosion.

Some, including Dr. Sam Mannan, a professor of chemical engineering at Texas A&M University, believe that enforcement of existing rules is key to preventing similar disasters.

"I believe before we start looking at new regulations or revising regulations, we owe it to ourselves to determine if the existing regulations on the books are being implemented and enforced in a comprehensive and universal manner," Mannan told a Senate committee last month. "I don’t think we’re currently doing that."

In 1990, Congress mandated the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to adopt a regulatory program, called the Risk Management Program (RMP), to prevent chemical disasters. However, the CSB pointed out that while the EPA imposed safety requirements in 1996 for certain toxic and flammable substances, it didn’t include reactive and explosive materials like ammonium nitrate.

Moulton said that a more efficient way of dealing with the RMP program would be to address chemicals that have certain characteristics, not the chemicals themselves.

The CSB has also said that the "EPA has not acted on the recommendation to broaden coverage” and that  “the agency has also had difficulty providing resources and adequate inspections to enforce even the existing programs at thousands of hazardous facilities across the country."

But that enforcement is precisely what professor Mannan argues is needed when speaking directly to the explosion that transpired in West, Texas, which he said was covered by OSHA 109, the minimum safety criteria for safe ammonia refridgeration.

"A lot of those requirements that are in there – if they had followed that, my guess is the probability of this incident would have been almost none," he said.

Al Jazeera

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