Efforts to prevent another Texas fertilizer explosion

Efforts to prevent another Texas fertilizer explosion

We were all reminded recently on the one year anniversary of the deadly fertilizer explosion in West, Texas about the importance of having an effective nationwide monitoring system targeting the shipment, distribution, and storage of chemicals of concern.

Since I wrote about the West explosion last year, I thought it was time to give an update on some interesting developments concerning measures to strengthen rules regarding the safe use and storage of ammonium nitrate.

In the wake of the West blast which killed 14 people last April, injured more than 200, and damaged nearby neighborhoods, President Obama issued an executive order to create a federal working group to study how to improve chemical facility safety and security in the U.S.

This report was recently handed over to the congressional Government Accountability Office and contains some interesting findings.

For one thing, the working group found that fertilizer representatives they talked to said prior to the Texas explosion that they did not know that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) ammonium nitrate storage regulations applied to the fertilizer industry. They suggested OSHA reach out to the fertilizer industry to help prevent another incident. 

Industry representatives explained that their understanding was based on a proposed rule published by OSHA in the Federal Register on April 13, 2007. The rule proposed revisions to the Explosives and Blasting Agents regulation.

In that notice, OSHA proposed a change to the ammonium nitrate storage requirements “to clarify that OSHA intends the requirements to apply to ammonium nitrate that will be used in the manufacture of explosives.” 

Although this proposed rule was never finalized, the industry representatives told the working group that they relied on this statement to mean OSHA did not intend the storage requirements to apply to ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

The report confirmed as much, stating: “OSHA had not reached out to the fertilizer industry to inform its members of OSHA’s requirements for the storage of ammonium nitrate fertilizer.”

In scouring the working group’s report, it appears the biggest problem investigators found was a general lack of communication and cohesiveness between OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Homeland Security – all pegged with responsibilities to protect our nation – which would be drastically improved by their jointly coordinating the monitoring of ammonium nitrate. 

At least 1,300 facilities in 47 states have reportable quantities of the chemical.

While the report’s goals of attainment are still a work in progress to be eventually reviewed by President Obama, the GAO at this time is recommending that federal agencies improve data sharing; OSHA and EPA consider revising related regulations to cover ammonium nitrate; and OSHA conduct outreach to the fertilizer industry and target high risk facilities for inspection.

Fertilizer industry

Over the past year, fertilizer industry representatives have been front and center in working with the above mentioned agencies to shore up regulations strengthening the purchase and handling of ammonium nitrate.

For instance (and mentioned in the GAO report), the fertilizer industry independently developed a voluntary program called “Responsible Ag” to promote compliance with federal regulations among fertilizer facilities.

Officials from The Fertilizer Institute and the Agricultural Retailers Association told the working group that they plan to consolidate federal regulatory requirements for fertilizer retail facilities into one comprehensive checklist and provide third-party audits to retailers based on a checklist they have developed. 

The Responsible Ag effort also contains information titled “Safety and Security Guidelines for the Storage and Transportation of Fertilizer Grade Ammonium Nitrate at Fertilizer Retail Facilities” that can be reviewed on The Fertilizer Institute website.
In addition, officials with the Asmark Institute, a nonprofit resource center for agricultural retailers in the U.S., said they developed their own compliance assessment tool for agricultural retailers.

The Fertilizer Institute and the Agricultural Retailers Association selected the Asmark Institute to develop a database that will include information on audit reports and scores from the third-party audits. 

The initiative is modeled after a voluntary audit program in Minnesota for agricultural retailers to help them improve compliance with federal and state regulations. OSHA had no involvement in developing this industry initiative.

The Western Plant Health Association (WPHA) fully supports our allies’ cooperation and work in creating the Responsible Ag program as the industry’s voluntary effort as a mechanism to assure a national safety standard dealing with “chemicals of concern.”

WPHA applauds industry representatives for their diligence in working closely with federal agencies to improve the safety standards regarding the distribution and storage of ammonium nitrate in the aftermath of the West, Texas tragedy.

It is worth mentioning that WPHA has had a long standing working relationship with Cal-OSHA here on the West Coast in successfully establishing storage and handling protocols for chemicals of concern which already exceed federal requirements, and that both Cal-OSHA and the U.S. EPA already accept for regulatory compliance.

As you can see, there are gigantic inroads underway nationally to prevent another West, Texas-type disaster and to make the shipping, purchase, and storage of ammonium nitrate and all chemicals of concern the safest and most secure as possible.

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