EPA Considering Regulating More Chemicals Under Its Rule for High-Hazard Substances

By Robert Iafolla  

July 24 — In response to the deadly 2013 explosion at a Texas fertilizer facility, the Environmental Protection Agency is considering adding ammonium nitrate and other substances to those covered by its regulation to prevent high-hazard chemical accidents, the agency announced July 24.

Updating the Risk Management Program's list of regulated substances is one of 19 policy and rulemaking topics that the EPA is considering. The agency is also looking at potentially requiring a safer alternatives option analysis, mandating buffer zones from facilities housing regulated substances and strengthening audit and maintenance requirements.

The EPA released a 113-page document detailing the options under consideration and asking for public input on specific questions about those options. The agency will collect information for 90 days after it officially publishes that request for information (RIN 2050-ZA07) in the Federal Register.

“Chemical safety and security are a shared commitment among government, industry, public interest groups and communities,” Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, said in a statement. “We are reaching out to all these partners to ask for their suggestions and comments to help us improve the Risk Management Program, and in turn improve safety and security of chemical facilities.”

The EPA issued the request for information in connection with the Obama administration's chemical safety working group, a multi-agency effort that the administration created as an answer to the April 2013 ammonium nitrate explosion that killed 15 people, hurt 250 and leveled part of West, Texas.

‘Finally Asking the Right Questions.'

President Barack Obama created the working group with an August 2013 executive order.

The working group held a dozen “listening sessions” around the country before releasing its progress report in June. Although neither the executive order nor the working group's report calls on the EPA to publish a request for information on the Risk Management Program, the agency said such a step was appropriate.

An agency's request for information is an optional, preliminary step in the regulatory process, designed to gather data and views on what—if any—rulemaking actions an agency will go on to take.

“Yes, it's been a year since the executive order and a year and a quarter since the West disaster, but it's also been nearly 20 years since the [Risk Management Program] was established,” Paul Orum, a consultant with the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, told Bloomberg BNA July 24. “During that time there's been all manner of congressional hearings—I've testified at about a half-dozen of them—and all manner of reports on chemical safety, and finally the EPA is posing many of the right questions.”

Under Consideration

The EPA's Risk Management Program is designed to prevent or minimize the consequences of accidental chemical releases. It includes management technologies, procedures and practices, such as a requirement that facilities housing covered chemicals over threshold quantities submit risk management plans to the agency.

The list of covered chemicals consists of 77 toxic substances and 63 flammable substances. But the list doesn't include ammonium nitrate, a chemical that is used as both a fertilizer and as an explosive.

The EPA suggested possibly adding ammonium nitrate to the list with a high threshold quantity, as well as tailoring specific provisions to manufacturers, fertilizer distributors and other types of facilities.

The agency is considering broader expansions to the covered substance list by potentially including additional toxic or flammable substances, explosives, reactive substances or other categories. It's also considering raising or lowering threshold quantities and removing certain substances from the list.

Beyond updating the list of covered substances, the EPA cast a wide net on policy and rulemaking topics to strengthen protections against catastrophic chemical releases. Topics under consideration range from bolstering various requirements of the Risk Management Program to the “safety case” regulatory regime that calls for high-risk facilities to show that they have reduced risks to a level as low as reasonably practical.

To contact the reporter on this story: Robert Iafolla in Washington at riafolla@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jim Stimson at jstimson@bna.com

The EPA's request for information on proposals to prevent accidental releases of hazardous chemicals is available at http://www.epa.gov/emergencies/RMPRFI_20140724.pdf