By Anthony Adragna
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced legislation April 25 that would make companies subject to criminal charges and civil penalties if they fail to register dangerous chemicals stored on site.
Under the bill, the Protecting Communities From Chemical Explosions Act of 2013, officials of companies that fail to complete a “top screen” under the Chemical Facilities Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program could face up to six years in prison.
Lautenberg called current regulations “toothless” and said his legislation would make companies subject to fines of $25,000 per day if they hold a chemical of interest above the screening threshold quantity established by CFATS without reporting it.
“Facilities that break the reporting rules today essentially get away with just a warning, so my legislation would stiffen penalties and make it a federal crime for plants to intentionally keep their possession of dangerous chemicals a secret,” Lautenberg said in a statement. “We may have been able to save lives in West, Texas, if first responders and regulators had knowledge about the chemicals stored on site.”
A top screen is a Department of Homeland Security tool that asks for information on the types of chemicals a facility has on its premises, and in what quantities and concentrations.
Members of Congress told BNA they would examine current chemical facility regulatory programs, including CFATS, in light of the April 17 fertilizer plant explosion in Texas that killed 15 people (37 CRR 468, 4/22/13).
The legislation also would make officers of a company that intentionally fail to comply with CFATS subject to a Class D felony penalty (46 U.S.C. 70119(a)).
Since it was first authorized by Section 550 of the 2007 Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill, CFATS has required high-risk chemical facilities to implement protective measures to meet DHS-defined, risk-based performance standards, develop site security plans, and complete security vulnerability assessments.
Lautenberg and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), House Homeland Security Committee ranking member, contend that human and property losses would have been reduced if the Texas facility accurately completed the CFATS top screening.
The facility had reported storage of at least 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that is explosive, and 110,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, a toxic chemical that can blind or kill at high exposure levels, according to documents filed with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Both of those quantities are far above threshold levels for a facility to complete a top screen under CFATS.
Lautenberg, a longtime advocate of chemical safety, introduced two bills in January 2013 that would require chemical, drinking water, and wastewater facilities to evaluate and, if feasible, install inherently safer technologies (37 CRR 121, 1/28/13).
The Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, an alliance working to strengthen public protections, said the explosion seemed to show that existing regulatory safeguards were not adequate to protect nearby communities.
“The regulation and oversight systems are often fragmented, so a small but potentially hazardous facility like this one in Texas can get what appears to be little scrutiny,” Peg Seminario, director of Safety and Health for the AFL-CIO, said in an April 25 statement. “There's a lot we don't know yet about what happened, but we do know there are gaps in the regulation and oversight systems.”
The Protecting Communities from Chemical Explosions Act of 2013 is available at http://op.bna.com/env.nsf/r?Open=avio-974n2p.