West Explosion Leads (Slowly) to Push for Chemical Industry Regulation Reform

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After the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, back in April left half the little North Texas town looking like a postapocalyptic war zone, the revelations about the sheer scope of the lack of regulation on the chemical industry were staggering.

There was a lot of hand wringing and talk of change as the 15 killed in the blast were honored, and the usual talk of making sure this would never happen again. But then nothing happened, which irritated a lot of official-type people such as Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and the Chemical Safety Board, which was shut out of the investigation.

Now, more than four months after the blast, President Obama has ordered a review of chemical plant rules, tasking agencies to find ways to safely store and regulate, ammonium nitrate, the chemical believed to be at the center of the West explosion, according to the Associated Press.

Right now, the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't regulate the chemical at all and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration requires that ammonium nitrate be stored in a room separate from combustibles with a partition that can withstand fire for up to an hour, but OSHA inspectors hadn't set foot in the West plant since 1985. U.S. regulations on fertilizer chemicals are so loose, they make European standards seem almost priggish. There were some agencies with rules on handling ammonium nitrate, but none of the agencies oversaw West, which is how the ticking time bomb of a facility slipped through the gaping systemic cracks. In those first days after the explosion, despite all the usual "never again" talk, it seemed like all the talk of regulation might just be talk. The Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency without any regulatory powers that is charged with simply investigating these types of incidents, was initially blocked from the investigation, a move the board complained about loudly and publicly. Then Boxer weighed in, warning that she would go to Obama if everyone didn't get in line and allow the CSB to investigate and start changing the regulatory standards that let this whole mess take place.

So the president finally announced a move forward last Thursday,with an executive order to look at improving how chemicals are handled. This seems like progress, but of course in politics nothing can be so simple and direct, because there's still the problem of the actual legislation to change how the chemical industry is regulated.

There's a bit of bipartisan legislation in the works, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, proposed a few months ago as a way to fix the gaping holes in government regulation of chemicals. The bill would give greater regulatory authority to the federal government, but, because there's always a flip side in these industry-sponsored deals, it would also limit state powers to regulate the chemical industry. The prospect of losing power on the state side of regulation has California leading a charge against the legislation, which California state officials say will gut some of the state's key environmental legislation, including laws on groundwater contamination and requirements to disclose carcinogens exposure.

Boxer took control of the show -- and the bill -- last week, calling for a complete rewrite of the bill, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The California senator is pushing for an overhaul of chemical safety law, one that fixes the gaps in regulation, protects health from exposure to dangerous chemicals, gives the EPA deadlines to act and protects the right to sue. There have been attempts to reinforce the original regulations for decades, but without any success. If Boxer can get enough support to get rewritten legislation passed, this could be the most important environmental legislation passed in years, San Francisco Chronicle reports. (Definitely not what the original bill, sponsored by the chemical industry, was aiming for.)

The West explosion put a bulls-eye on the sheer scope of the lack of regulation for chemical plants in the United States, but there's still a long way between knowing that there are gaps in regulation and actually filling them in. In a Washington D.C. that is reportedly more divided than ever and a Congress that can't seem to get anything done, getting new rules and new legislation may take some kind of legislative miracle.

The people of West are working to rebuild their town, and as the rubble disappears it seems possible that people, outside of those from that little North Texas town, will forget about the explosion and the lack of regulation that put the town in the cross-hairs of this whole mess, but now there's all this regulatory talk. Maybe something will actually change.

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