Federal report recommends overhaul of U.S. chemical safety oversight

PHOENIX - This is part of a series of stories in which the ABC15 Investigators and the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting collaborated to explore how Arizona regulates the storage and transportation of hazardous chemicals across the state.

A federal task force identified sweeping shortfalls in the oversight of hazardous materials in the U.S., showing that short and long-term challenges exist to protect communities from the toxic and explosive chemicals stored at facilities across the nation.

This is according to a federal working group that was created in 2013 by an executive order from President Barack Obama. It followed the 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, which killed 15 people and raised concerns about the safety of hazardous chemical storage facilities.

The report , released June 6, details recommendations made to the White House in a 121-page document for improving chemical facility safety and security. It includes suggestions for a nationwide overhaul, at all levels of government, for regulating companies that store and transport hazardous chemicals.

The report suggests improving coordination, information sharing and emergency planning between federal and state governments, private businesses, and communities. It also recommends ways to improve and modernize existing laws. But authors of the report concede that stakeholder groups haven't agreed on what changes, if any, should be made to current regulations.

"We want to underscore that this report is a milestone, not an endpoint," senior officials from the interagency working group stated in a blog post on the Department of Homeland Security's website on June 6. "While the report describes many activities already undertaken to improve chemical facility safety and security, it also makes clear that much additional work is necessary to implement the consolidated action plan."

The most significant findings mirror the absent regulatory oversight in Arizona that was identified by a three-month-long investigation by the ABC15 Investigators and the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.

ABC15 and AZCIR identified the same lack of information sharing between companies storing hazardous chemicals and the agencies tasked with responding if an accident occurs. We also identified a lack of state and local oversight of the facilities, and several exemptions that allow companies to avoid reporting requirements for the chemicals they store.

The federal task force addressed those same issues, including a recommendation to add ammonium nitrate - the chemical compound that detonated in West, Texas - to a list of chemicals required for federal regulation.

But the current regulations for agencies that oversee ammonium nitrate are spread across multiple departments at all levels of government, meaning various regulations would need to be updated or combined to provide comprehensive guidance for oversight of the chemical.

These recommendations are just a portion of five topic areas in which increased oversight is needed, according to the report. The areas include strengthening community planning and preparedness, enhancing coordination among federal and state agencies, improving data management, modernizing policies and regulations and incorporating stakeholder feedback to develop best practices. It also suggests incorporating safer chemical procedures and alternative methods for storing chemicals.

The federal task force was led by the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. departments of Labor, Homeland Security, Justice, Agriculture and Transportation. The report creates a Federal Action Plan, which explains the findings, recommendations and suggestions for improving nationwide oversight of chemical storage facilities.

Some of the recommendations will be implemented within the next year by various state and federal agencies, private sector organizations and communities, the report states. Whether the changes become law or how they are implemented, however, is largely left up to the individual agencies.

"Preparedness is an ongoing, evolving process," the report states. "Many of these actions have already been put in place or will be instituted in the next year, while the success of other improvements relies on longer-term planning, coordination and action."

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