A member of the United States House of Representatives has introduced a resolution to revoke a regulation of the Environmental Protection Agency developed after President Obama issued an executive order in response to a fertilizer warehouse fire and explosion in West, Texas on April 17, 2013. Fifteen people died in the explosion which produced a seismic shock equivalent to a factor 2.1 earthquake. The cause of the fire was first thought to be lax handling of materials at the plant but in May of 2016 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms announced a criminal investigation of the case.
The warehouse was located in a town of 2800 people. The owners had been cited by federal regulators for unlabeled anhydrous ammonia tanks and there had been reports of ammonia odors. State and local authorities had been informed that 270 tons of ammonium nitrate were stored at the site but there was no federal reporting of that. (Texas forbids fire codes in 173 of its 254 counties.) The “worst case” noted on the plant’s EPA Risk Management Plan was for release of anhydrous ammonia. Recently the Fertilizer Institute has issued new guidelines, and the National Fire Protection Association and the United States Department of Transportation now say that fire fighters attacking a massive ammonium nitrate fire should use a large amount of water from an unspecified distance.
Federal laws regulating chemicals are promulgated through EPA rule-making. That process took three and a half years since the 2013 order, and Congress can now revoke EPA regulations issued late in President Obama’s administration with little chance of a veto. Several chemical industry trade organizations have petitioned Congress stating that the recent changes to EPA regulations are costly, without demonstrated benefit, and potentially a security risk. However, the federal rule changes put in place after the fertilizer warehouse explosion do not address the conditions under which ammonium nitrate was stored before the disaster in the town of West, Texas.
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