By Anthony Adragna
President Obama signed an executive order on chemical security Aug. 1 that aims to streamline information sharing, modernize regulations, and establish a federal working group to improve coordination between various governmental entities.
The main goals of the order (Executive Order No. 13,650) are improving coordination with state and local partners on risk management and emergency planning for chemical emergencies, enhancing information sharing among federal agencies, the modernization of various chemical security regulations, and stakeholder outreach to develop industry best practices.
The order calls for the formation of a working group, co-chaired by the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Labor, that will provide a status update within 270 days of the order.
“Incidents such as the devastating explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas in April are tragic reminders that the handling and storage of chemicals present serious risks that must be addressed,” the White House wrote in a fact sheet accompanying the order. “We can take some common sense steps now to improve safety and security and build on Federal agencies' ongoing work to reduce the risks associated with hazardous chemicals.”
Within nine months of the executive order, the Obama administration wants federal agencies to have developed “a unified federal approach for identifying and responding to risks in chemical facilities.”
Obama's order came as a House subcommittee held a hearing on the problem of chemical facilities that fail to comply with existing federal regulatory regiments like the West, Texas, fertilizer facility that exploded in April (see related story).
Under the executive order, federal agencies will examine within 90 days whether additional chemicals should be covered under existing federal regulatory programs such as the DHS Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program or the EPA Risk Management Program.
The working group also must identify options for improved chemical security through existing risk management practices within 90 days of the order through “agency programs, private sector initiatives, Government guidance, outreach, standards, and regulations.”
Following that initial stage, the working group would have another 90 days for stakeholder outreach and then would be required to develop a plan to implement “practical and effective improvements” to risk management within 90 days.
The working group also will be tasked with launching a pilot program to test “innovative methods” for interagency collaboration within 45 days of the executive order.
Michael Kennedy, public policy counsel for the Agricultural Retailers Association, told BNA the executive order appeared to be a “direct repercussion” of the West, Texas, disaster.
Kennedy said there were inconsistencies in the order, pointing to sections that talked about lessening burdens for businesses while also emphasizing the need for expanded regulatory regimes.
“The devil is going to be in the details for this one,” Kennedy said.
The American Chemistry Council told BNA it would review the executive order over the next several days before making formal comments.
Rick Hind, legislative director at Greenpeace, told BNA the executive order was a step in the right direction and said he hopes EPA will require the installation of inherently safer technologies as part of updated chemical security regulations.
“It's a process that could be very fruitful and the key test will be in 90 days when they issue the policy options,” Hind said. “You can't completely prevent a chemical disaster unless you use a safer alternative. [EPA] has clear authority to issue new rules and safety standards.”
Meanwhile, a coalition of more than 100 labor and environmental groups sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy Aug. 1 calling on her to make chemical security one of the “priority initiatives” of her first 100 days in office.
“Prevention is the only fool-proof way to ensure the safety of millions of people whose communities are needlessly in danger,” the groups wrote. “Taken together our organizations represent millions of people from across the U.S.”
The coalition added that its members “look forward to working together with you to embrace a shift” from “risk management“ policies to “risk prevention“ policies.
The letter was signed by such groups as the Center for Health, Environment, & Justice; United Automobile Workers; Physicians for Social Responsibility; Sierra Club; and NAACP.
Rep. Henry Waxman, the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called Obama's executive order a “huge step forward” in protecting communities from the risks of chemical storage.
“The overhaul ordered by the President will help secure communities living next to facilities with huge stockpiles of explosive chemicals,” Waxman said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the agencies as they carry out the President's plan.”
Waxman expressed reservations about existing CFATS regulations in a July 31 letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano (see related story).
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said the Obama order will help improve national security without relying on Congress to pass legislative proposals.
“Knowing the President's deep commitment to the people of West, Texas after the tragic explosion of ammonium nitrate, I informed him last week of specific ideas that emanated from a hearing I chaired,” Boxer said in the statement. “I couldn't be more gratified to learn today that he is taking executive action to follow through on the very solutions that were discussed and that I promised to pursue.”
Executive Order No. 13,650 is available at http://op.bna.com/env.nsf/r?Open=jsun-9a6ncw.
The fact sheet released by the White House along with the executive order is available at http://op.bna.com/env.nsf/r?Open=jsun-9a6lab.
The environmental and labor coalition's Aug. 1 letter to McCarthy is available at http://op.bna.com/env.nsf/r?Open=fwhe-9a6smb.