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Watchdogs Warned of Chemical-Plant Oversight

Washington — In the months before last week’s deadly fertilizer-plant explosion in Texas, U.S. government watchdogs criticized federal oversight of facilities that make or store dangerous chemicals.

Agencies from the Department of Homeland Security to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board were faulted for taking too long to act or failing to persuade regulators to impose stricter safety rules.

The deficiencies are gaining fresh scrutiny after the April 17 explosion at the Adair Grain fertilizer facility in West, Texas, that killed 14 people. State and federal investigators are seeking the cause of the blast, in which 10 firefighters and emergency personnel were among the fatalities.

“The fact that a community and a nation lost 14 people in an explosion that leveled buildings so close to this plant tells us something went very wrong,” Rep. Paul Tonko of New York, top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce’s subcommittee on environment and economy, said in an email. “Clearly the state and federal government should have been doing much more to prevent an accident of this magnitude.”

The U.S. has about 90 facilities — including chemical factories, refineries, water treatment plants and fertilizer depots — that in a worst-case scenario would pose risks to more than 1 million people, according to a Congressional Research Service report in November that analyzed reports submitted by companies to the Environmental Protection Agency.

About 400 other facilities could pose risks to more than 100,000 people, according to the report. The calculations were based on the proximity of each plant to a population center as well as a “worst-case release scenario” — such as an explosion or leak — that facility owners are required to report to the EPA.

Federal watchdogs in reports and testimony laid out a series of agency failings: The Department of Homeland Security, which aims to protect chemical plants from terrorist attack, may take more than seven years to review security plans of 3,120 facilities; the EPA’s inspectors of chemical facilities lacked proper training; and the Chemical Safety Board failed to get many safety recommendations implemented, with 25 percent languishing for five years or more.

Tonko’s panel held an oversight hearing on Homeland Security’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program, or CFATS, on March 14 at which the Congressional Research Service released a report showing gaps in anti-terrorism efforts. There’s no indication the West explosion is related to terrorism.

“Sadly, it has been a very painful process to see how badly CFATS had fallen short of our expectations and to see the struggle, both inside DHS as well as externally, to get the program back on track,” Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., and committee chairman, said in a statement then. “In key areas the suggested progress is not what we had hoped.”

The EPA doesn’t collect information about ammonium nitrate, the chemical stored at the Texas plant. The West facility was approved by state regulators to store 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, according to records. Adair didn’t tell U.S. agencies how much ammonium nitrate was on site.

The highly explosive chemical is responsible for some of the deadliest industrial accidents and terrorist attacks. Timothy McVeigh used it in 1995 to destroy Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people. The Irish Republican Army used it to attack London’s Canary Wharf in 1996.

Daniel Keeney, a spokesman for Adair, declined to comment. Donald Adair, the company’s owner, in a statement issued April 19, said, “We pledge to do everything we can to understand what happened to ensure nothing like this ever happens again in any community.”

The explosion at the Adair plant blew through a 3-foot concrete foundation and left a crater 93 feet by 10 feet, Special Agent Robert Champion of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms told reporters yesterday. The explosion, which damaged structures in a 37-block area, leveled two large buildings on the site and cut off the top of a corn silo, according to pool reporters on site. Wreckage could be seen in a field, about 150 yards east of the plant.

About 70 investigators including engineers and chemists from state and federal agencies are poring over the scene. They’ve interviewed 60 to 70 witnesses, including passersby and emergency crews.

Since a chemical leak in Bhopal, India, in 1984 that killed about 3,800 people, environmental groups, unions and safety groups have pushed the U.S. to tighten oversight of chemical production and storage facilities. While they pressed for the proposals after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, legislation never passed in Congress.

Instead, a patchwork of programs operates under separate departments, each with its own objectives, congressional oversight and constraints.

The Department of Homeland Security’s chemical security program drew increased congressional scrutiny after an internal memo detailing problems with the program surfaced in 2011, according to Stephen Caldwell, a director who oversees the agency for the Government Accountability Office. At the current pace, it could take years to review all the plans and conduct needed inspections, Caldwell said at the March congressional hearing, according to his written testimony.

DHS has already sped up reviews and “recognizes the need to increase the pace of authorization and approvals and is examining potential approaches for increasing the pace,” Rand Beers, undersecretary of Homeland Security, testified at the hearing.

For the EPA, its inspector general found many inspectors and supervisors lack minimum training requirements.

“As noted in the IG report, EPA started addressing program improvement several years ago beginning in 2010 and continuing to the present with steps to make changes to better our” chemical inspection program, Alisha Johnson, an EPA spokeswoman, said in an email.

The Chemical Safety Board, a five-member investigating body that lacks the power to impose rules, “did not consistently achieve its goals and standards, as outlined in its current strategic plan, for timely implementation of its safety recommendations,” its inspector general said in an August review. In a letter of response, Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said the independent agency is adopting measures to better advocate for adoption of its recommendations by industry, labor unions and government agencies.

Safety advocates say deficiencies uncovered at the departments show the need for legislation to tighten rules.

“You have to reduce the consequence of an attack on your facility,” Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace, said in an interview. “If you can’t prevent an accident, prevent the catastrophic consequence of an accident.”

Measures previously considered would have forced companies to abandon the most-dangerous chemicals, or prodded them into using less of those chemicals and adopting safeguards to ensure that they couldn’t cause a catastrophe.

“What will be important is the investigation” in West, Scott Jensen, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, which represents companies such as 3M Co. and BP Plc., said in an interview. “It’s early to figure out what steps need to be taken. We need to be sure the legislation in place is being implemented properly.”

— With assistance from Jack Kaskey in Houston and Mike Lee in Dallas.

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