Senator Boxer Tears Into the EPA Over West, Texas Explosion

Mike Elk

A railroad boxcar filled with ammonium nitrate lays on its side near to the remains of the fertilizer plant that exploded on April 18, 2013 in West, Texas. (Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

At a Senate hearing last Thursday, Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Senator Barbara Boxer (D‑Calif.) grilled the Environmental Protection Agency official in charge of safety at chemical plants. Boxer wanted answers about why the EPA failed to adopt a 2002 recommendation from the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) to adopt stricter safety measures for reactive chemicals such as ammonium nitrate” — the fertilizer ingredient that fueled the deadly West, Texas explosion in April.

Four and a half years into the Obama administration, the EPA has still not followed a 2002 recommendation issued by the CSB — and ignored by the Bush administration — that reactive chemicals like ammonium nitrate be classified as extremely hazardous” under the General Duties clause of Clean Air Act. Any facility dealing with extremely hazardous chemicals is required to have an EPA-approved plan for handling them.

Today I am calling on EPA to adopt this critical safeguard and to report back to me on this request within the next two weeks,” said Boxer in her opening remarks. Acting on this safety measure is critically important, because there are thousands of facilities across the nation…and we know this dangerous chemical must be handled safely. If it is, disasters will be avoided.”

EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Barry Breen began his Senate testimony with a ten-minute discussion of the agency’s process for examining risks, but did not address the West, Texas explosion. Afterward, Senator Boxer chewed into the EPA official.

That was the most vague testimony I’ve ever heard. I don’t sense in your voice any type of shock or desire to move forward,” Boxer told Breen.

Boxer then asked Breen why the EPA had failed to follow the Chemical Safety Board’s recommendations. Breen argued that the Chemical Safety Board’s recommendations did not explicitly state that ammonium nitrate should be placed on the list of reactive chemicals requiring stricter regulation.

Boxer repeatedly asked Breen to name a timeframe for coming up with policy recommendations to prevent another explosion like the one in West, Texas, but the EPA official gave no specific answer. Finally, Boxer interrupted Breen mid-sentence to say, What’s your timeframe? Sir, I don’t have enough time to hear you entire biography. Just tell me — please answer the question, What is your timeframe?’ “

Breen replied, In order to establish that timeframe, we need to understand the issue better, so that’s what we are doing now.”

I am sympathetic to the fact that there is work to be done,” said Boxer later in the hearing. I am unsympathetic to the attitude that I hear, which is a lack of urgency, because lives are being lost and recommendations were made a long time ago, and nothing is happening.”

Greenpeace, which petitioned the EPA in 2012 to follow the Chemical Safety Board’s 2002 recommendation, is similarly impatient.

We asked the EPA over two years ago to use authority they have under the Clean Air Act to prevent chemical disasters and Barry Breen says they still have to understand the issue? The EPA PROPOSED this program in 2002 but Bush decapitated the effort,” writes John Deans, a policy analyst with Greenpeace Toxic Campaign, in an email to In These Times.

For now, Senator Boxer pledges to keep pushing the EPA to prevent another tragedy like the West, Texas explosion.

We are going to work with you,” said Boxer, and, if we have to, against you, to make sure this happens.”

This piece was partially underwritten by a grant from LaborMail to support Mike Elk’s labor reporting.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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