A federal working group has released an update on its work to improve safety and security at chemical facilities in the United States that, while important to the economy, continue to pose a risk to neighboring communities and workers.
Following the explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that killed 15 people and injured more than 200 others, President Barack Obama signed an executive order in August 2013 to improve the safety and security of chemical facilities and reduce the risks of hazardous chemicals to facility workers and operators, communities, and responders.
That executive order created a working group, the Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group, made up of representatives from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), among others, to carry out those tasks. The working group has been meeting regularly over the past 10 months and has released regular updates on its progress.
Most recently, on June 6 the working group made publicly available a report that was submitted to the president in May on its work so far. In the report, Actions to Improve Chemical Facility Safety and Security—A Shared Commitment, the working group outlined its progress, focusing on actions to date, findings and lessons learned, challenges, and short and long-term priority actions.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that last year's explosions in West, Texas, "sent shockwaves" through the government and that he was pleased with the working group's report.
"We now know that when it comes to the chemical sector, there are some potentially-deadly regulatory gaps that demand action. The report...sets the stage for such action," Thompson said in a statement. "I am particularly pleased that among the 10 priority action areas that the working group identified within chemical facility safety and security policy and regulations that warrant modernization were enhancement of ammonium nitrate safety and security, promition of safer technology and alternatives, and building a stronger Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program."
However, this report does not mean that the working group is done with its job. Instead, “we want to underscore that we see this report as a milestone, not an endpoint,” the group said in a blog post
featured on DHS’s Web site. “We now transition to implementation of the priority actions identified in the action plan, an effort that will be completed over time and requires the collective efforts of all of us with a stake in chemical facility safety and security: communities, first responders, and industry, alongside local, state, and federal government.”
Strengthening Community Planning and Preparedness
As part of strengthening community planning and preparedness, the working group has focused on Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) and Tribal Emergency Planning Committees (TEPCs). The working group considers these committees essential to the planning that occurs at the local level to providing formal prevention and preparedness engagement structure.
To strengthen these committees’ efforts, the working group has taken a variety of actions, including engaging first responders across the country to identify and discuss potential methods to increase first responder preparedness. They’ve also shared lessons learned across departments, particularly from DHS and the EPA.
Additionally, the EPA has worked to upgrade its Computer-Aided Management of Emergency Operations (CAMEO) suite “to provide more useful and accurate information to emergency personnel and the public.”
The report also outlined future actions to strengthen community planning, including strengthening State Emergency Response Commissions (SERCs), Tribal Emergency Response Commissions (TERCs), LEPCs, and TEPCs; improving first responder and emergency management preparedness and response training; identifying and coordinating resources for local and state response commissions; expanding tools to assist local and state response commissions for collecting, storing, and using chemical facility information; and enhancing awareness and increasing information sharing with communities around chemical facilities.
Enhancing Federal Operational Coordination
Stakeholders in the chemical community have asked for “stronger collaboration” within the federal community as “various chemical facility regulatory program requirements and information collection efforts are a crucial component of success.” Additionally, many stakeholders feel that information and data-sharing efforts need “significant improvement” so first responders, LEPCs, and community residents can gain access to information for preparedness planning efforts.
In this vein, the working group has initiated a pilot in the New York-New Jersey area. This pilot brings together regional federal employees, state agencies, and local agencies as a “test-bed” to confirm lessons learned, collect and assess best practices, and develop alternative solutions to address safety and security challenges, according to the report.
Additionally, the working group has also reached out to the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) to identify possible updates to existing memos of understanding between the CSB and EPA, CSB and OSHA, and CSB and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
Along with these actions, the report also outlined future actions the working group plans to take to enhance coordination. These actions include establishing standard operation procedures for federal coordination at the national and regional levels, and cross training federal chemical facility safety and security field personnel to provide awareness of related regulatory programs.
Improving Data Management
Many federal agencies collect information on chemical facility safety and security, but they do so in differing formats. Furthermore, agencies manage this data in a way that does not “fully support interagency compliance analysis” and currently, there is no clearinghouse that contains all of the data points for chemical security and safety data.
Acting on concerns about duplicate databases, the working group has worked to improve data management in the federal government. Actions taken over the last year include the EPA updating its Substance Registry Service and the Facility Registry Service to include relevant OSHA Process Safety Management and DHS Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards data. DHS has also worked with trade associations to “foster outreach to potentially noncompliant facilities” that have not been contacted in the past to help raise awareness about chemical facility security regulations.
Also, EPA Region 8 tested a new Emergency Response Planner system that “aggregates chemical facility and infrastructure data from various federal and state databases, and displays it on an interactive Geographic Information System application.”
In the future, the working group plans to establish a cross-agency team of experts to standardize data and develop a common facility identifier, aggregate data from across the federal agencies and establish a single Web-based interface for data collection, and improve information tools for regulated chemicals.
Modernizing Policies and Regulations
As part of its work, the working group has reviewed existing programs, recommendations from the safety and security communities, and feedback from the executive order listening sessions on modernizing key policies, regulations, and standards.
After receiving stakeholder input, which varied from requesting no new regulations to implementing a wide-variety of new ones, the working group took a number of actions to continue requests for information, such as a published request for information through OSHA. Through this request, the working group hoped to gain feedback on whether the agency’s chemical standards should be expanded to address additional regulated substances and types of hazards.
In other measures, the EPA expanded its inspector training curriculum to include advanced process safety training courses in key areas. These areas include mechanical integrity codes and standards, root cause investigation, and human error prevention. DHS also took measures by conducting more than 100 compliance assistance visits through May of 2014 assist regulated facilities in “understanding and meeting” a terrorism program’s risk-based security standards, according to the report.
Going forward, the working group has identified 10 priority action areas to modernize security policies and regulations. Some of those areas include enhancing ammonium nitrate safety and security, promoting safer technology and alternatives, working with states to improve Safe Drinking Water Act measures to prevent and prepare for chemical spills, and work with Congress to pursue an amendment to the Safe Explosives Act.
Throughout the last 10 months, the working group has held a variety of events to engage stakeholders to voice their concerns through various listening groups and activities throughout the nation.
“Safety and security are a shared commitment,” the working group said in a statement. “As actions in this report are pursued, we recognize that the federal government must put in place a transparent, inclusive process that continues to engage you and all stakeholders. We appreciate your input that has brought us to this point, and ask that you commit to being part of this effort as we continue to make progress.”
As part of its continued efforts, the working group plans to continue to solicit stakeholder feedback and conduct regular outreach programs. However, dates and times for future events were not included in the report or statement.