On August 1, 2013 President Barack Obama issued Executive Order (EO) #13650 on Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security, which directed federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to “enhance safety and security of chemical facilities.”
The EO was in part inspired by the massive April 17, 2013 explosion at the fertilizer facility in West, Texas that claimed the lives of 15 people, twelve of whom were first responders. In addition 280 people were injured. Homes and buildings were destroyed or damaged nearly a half mile from the explosion.
West Texas is not an isolated incident, on March 6, 2014, Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso Chair of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, told the Senate that the “United States is facing an industrial chemical safety crisis.” For the last three decades since the 1984 Bhopal disaster weak voluntary measures have allowed more disasters such as West to occur and continue to leave us all exposed to future disasters that can be prevented. The pesticide plant in Bhopal leaked methyl isocynate gas and other chemicals into the air taking the lives of 8,000 in the first few days of the disaster and thousands more since. The health affects of the disaster have left communities like Bhopal with long-term chronic diseases such as respiratory and heart disease.
On January 3, 2014, a multi-agency Working Group of the EPA, DHS & OSHA created by the EO issued a set of policy options and requested comments on them by March 31, 2014. Over 25,000 comments were submitted and the majority represented advocates asking for chemical disaster prevention policies that ensure the use of the safest chemical processes available.
Comments from Coalition partners:
Executive Order Working Group Status
The EO Working Group released its report to the White House on June 06, 2014. The report included some of the recommendations made by the most endangered communities and workers throughout this nine month process. However, 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 report signals a door opening for improvements but leaves out the details on the bigger steps needed to require stronger enforcement measures. Recent news coverage points to the areas that remain to be seen with the release of the report.
On July 31, 2014 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published the Request For Information (RFI) in the Federal Register, which offers an opportunity for the public to get involved and demand that disaster prevention policies be required across chemical plants and chemical storage facilities. Implementing inherently safer systems is a necessity for ensuring the safety and health of workers, community members and the surrounding environment.
The public comment period for this RFI ended on October 29, 2014 and over 110,000 public comments were submitted to the EPA. A joint letter and detailed Coalition comments were submitted from 156 organizations urging action on the President’s excutive order on chemical safety and security.
Too many disasters and lives have been lost due to state and federal programs that have failed to require preventative measures such as the use of inherently safer technologies (IST), also known as safer chemical processes. President Obama was a champion for IST as a U.S. Senator. As a Presidential candidate he promised to issue IST regulations. Since becoming President the Obama DHS and EPA have testified in favor of IST requirements in Congress. Because the use of IST can eliminate catastrophic hazards it should be the first choice within a hierarchy of comprehensive policies designed to prevent disasters where ever feasible. In addition, we need to provide more immediate support, assistance and protections where safer alternatives are not yet available.
The President’s EO is about making communities and workplaces safer. That means finally protecting the workers inside the plant as well as the people living outside of the plant. According to the EPA, there are 473 chemical facilities that each put 100,000 or more people at risk including fenceline communities and workers at these plants. In addition, the EPA identified 89 chemical plants that each put one million or more people at risk.
The painful lessons of the past should compel us as a nation to shift from out dated policies that merely attempt to “manage” catastrophic hazards to policies that actually prevent them whether they are a result of an accident, natural disaster or terrorist attack. That should be inevitable if we make the safety of workers, communities, and first responders our national priority.