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GENERAL ACCOUNTING OFFICE (GAO) LAMBASTES NITRATES INDUSTRY

21 May 2014

WASHINGTON – The USA government has no way of fully knowing which chemical facilities stock ammonium nitrate, the substance that exploded in 2013 at a Texas fertilizer plant and killed 14 people, congressional investigators say. Outdated federal policies, poor information sharing with states, and a raft of industry exemptions point to scant Federal oversight. About half of the facilities that are in the federal database were located in six states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas. They include chemical plants or any location that stores ammonium nitrate, a widely used fertilizer, such as farm supply retailers or fertilizer distribution warehouses. The report found regulatory gaps in environmental and worker protections, and urged broad changes to USA safety rules. Pres Obama pledged to stiffen enforcement following the explosion on April 17, 2013, in the town of West, in Texas. These GAO findings come as a federal working group established by Pres. Obama prepares to submit its report later this month that outlines ways to improve oversight

AMONG GAO’s FINDINGS ARE:

The GAO faulted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for decades-old chemical safety regulations that have failed in large part to cover ammonium nitrate. Facilities that store ammonium nitrate are rarely inspected by OSHA, including the one that blew up in Texas, in part because the agency relies on EPA regulations that do not list ammonium nitrate as a hazardous material. OSHA had put in place some requirements for storing the fertilizer back in the 1970s, but prior to the Texas explosion the agency did not widely publicize them to the fertilizer industry.

HOMELAND SECURITY DEPARTMENT’s database captured only a fraction of the ammonium nitrate storage facilities in the U.S. The federal database shows that 1,345 facilities in 47 states store ammonium nitrate. But spot checks of similar state records found that the federal list missed as many as two-thirds of the storage sites, said the report, which faulted companies’ noncompliance, legal loopholes or poor federal coordination with states.

THE NITRATES INDUSTRY often views the rules as applying only if the material were used to make explosives. The audit said the agency may be unwisely granting exemptions to retailers that store and blend fertilizer for direct sale. As a result, prior to last year’s explosion, OSHA had cited just one facility for violations of its ammonium nitrate storage requirements in its more than 40-year history,

Both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are at fault for decades-old chemical safety regulations that have failed in large part to cover ammonium nitrate. Facilities that store ammonium nitrate are rarely inspected by OSHA, including the one that blew up in Texas, in part because the agency relies on EPA regulations that do not list ammonium nitrate as a hazardous material. OSHA had put in place some requirements for storing the fertilizer back in the 1970s, but prior to the Texas explosion the agency did not widely publicize them to the fertilizer industry.(SO – OSHA BLAMES EPA, EPA BLAMES OSHA).

GAO CONCERNED MANY PEOPLE NOW LIVING CLOSE TO EXPLOSIVE DANGER The government audit tracked a month-long reporting effort last year by the AP that drew upon public records in 28 states. The AP investigation found that schools, nursing homes and hospitals were within the potentially devastating blast zones of more than 120 facilities storing ammonium nitrate. In addition, the investigation concluded that the existence of other facilities nationwide remained a mystery due to poor information sharing. (More like “Hush-money” at work).

The EPA, OSHA and the Homeland Security Department generally agreed with the GAO findings. They emphasized that states are not required to report their data to federal agencies, and that new efforts to improve coordination will be spelled out in the coming task force report. OSHA officials also said they were re-evaluating ways to target high-risk facilities for inspection, even with their limited financial resources.

The GAO report noted that U.S. safety standards typically fell short compared to those in Canada, France, Germany and Britain, which in many cases bar the use of wood or other combustible material in ammonium storage facilities.

GAO CONCLUDED:Without improved monitoring, federal regulators will not know the extent to which dangerous conditions at some facilities may continue to exist”.

David Michaels, an assistant Labor Department secretary said defensively: We believe that we have already made significant improvements to reduce the likelihood of ammonium nitrate incidents” (OH YEAH! Does your Mama know where you are?).

FOUR IMPORTANT DEMOCRATIC SENATORS AND TWO REPRESENTATIVES ARE CONCERNED; on 20 May 2014 called the safety lapses “unacceptable”, and in a letter urged Pres. Obama to take action to address GAO’s findings. Signing the letter were chairs or senior members of the relevant congressional committees on labor, environment, or the budget: Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.; Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn.; Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.; and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. The letter to Pres. Obama said: “Almost every state has communities that are at risk of experiencing a similar disaster…Last year’s devastating ammonium nitrate fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, is a tragic example of what can happen when there are inadequate protections.” GAO also urged Congress to eliminate an annual budget provision that exempts from safety inspections facilities with 10 or fewer employees, which make up about 4% of the 1,345 locations, and others not yet registered.

We are grateful to AP for shining the light of scrutiny on the Nitrates Industry.

OUR TAKE AND COMMENT

The nitrates industry just does not want to see the dangers they impose on nearby populations to save money. The town of West, in Texas is proof of that. What they need is for the EPA and OSHA to knock on their forehead and say: “Hello, anybody home?” Then warn them about their community responsibilities, and threaten them with stiff fines for non-compliance, and liabilities to nearby communities/people; but that, will require the enactment of Federal laws, and EPA/OSHA regulations /standards that are clear, and unambiguous. Democratic Senators and Congressmen have expressed concern, and the Obama administration wants to do something (whatever that may turn out to be) to skirt Republican “Do nothing” intransigence. It would be futile to expect State governments to enact such rules/regulations because clearly they have been lobbied to do nothing for over 40 years.

So, once again it is up to the White House to attempt to get the Nitrates industry monitored/standardized. We wish them good luck!

Edward Oliver Gonzalez (gonzedo)

e-mail> gonzedo@yahoo.com

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May 21, 2014 at 10:38 PM
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