WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama is ordering federal agencies to review safety rules at chemical facilities in response to the deadly April explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant.
In an executive order announced Thursday, Obama tasks agencies with identifying new ways to safely store and secure ammonium nitrate, the explosive chemical investigators say caused the blast. Agencies are also being told to determine whether additional chemicals should be covered by federal regulatory programs.
The massive explosion at the plant in the community of West, Texas, killed 15 people, leveled hundreds of structures and damaged three of the town's four schools. It also prompted new scrutiny of regulations at chemical plants and the risks posed by deadly chemicals to people living in surrounding areas.
While the explosion is still being investigated, preliminary findings have been presented to Congress. A report sent to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in June showed that the decades-old standards used to regulate fertilizer chemicals are far weaker than those used in other countries.
The report concluded that the safety of ammonium nitrate fertilizer storage "falls under a patchwork of U.S. regulatory standards and guidance -- a patchwork that has many large holes."
The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, does not regulate the chemical. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that ammonium nitrate be stored separately from other combustibles in a room that has a partition that can withstand fire for up to an hour. But the agency had not inspected the West plant since 1985.
Some agencies do have rules on ammonium nitrate, but none apparently applied to the facility in West.
With the investigation continuing, the White House said it wanted to move forward where it could to address chemical safety concerns. Obama's executive order also calls for improved coordination among state and local agencies that deal with chemical plants. And it tasks the federal government with modernizing its information sharing about the plants.
Hours after the President announced his executive order a congressional hearing was held to examine why facilities like West Fertilizer had gone "unnoticed" by the Department of Homeland Security.
The Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standard calls for companies storing large quantities of "chemicals of interest" to report to DHS for monitoring. The CFATS program is designed to ensure dangerous chemicals are protected from theft or used for criminal activity.
Local 2 Investigates reported in April the amount of ammonium nitrate stored at West should have triggered a report to DHS under the CFATS program. According to DHS officials West never filed that report and as a result the Department was not aware that much ammonium nitrate was stored at the facility until after the explosion.
"What's even more disturbing is West fertilizer is one of the literally thousands of similarly situated facilities across the country that DHS has no knowledge of," said Texas Congressman Michael McCaul.
McCaul and other congressional leaders pushed DHS to become more proactive in identifying facilities that should be included in the program to make sure these facilities know and are following the rules.
"While we do know that this was not likely an act of terrorism, imagine if it had been?" said Pennsylvania Congressman Patrick Meehan. "What kind of questioning would be going on today about the failure to connect the dots or the failure to perform?"
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