President Obama announced an executive order on Thursday tasking federal agencies with reviewing safety rules at chemical facilities and identifying new ways to store and secure ammonium nitrate, the chemical that caused a fertilizer plant explosion in West, TX in April that left 15 dead. The agencies are also ordered to determine whether other chemicals should fall under the purview of federal regulatory programs.
The plant in West had slipped by seven different regulators, four of which are federal agencies: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). OSHA hadn’t inspected the plant since 1985. A report for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee found that the standards used to regulate fertilizer chemicals in the U.S., which are decades old, are far weaker than in other countries.
While the exact cause of the blast still hasn’t been determined, it is known that about 28 to 34 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded with the power of 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of TNT, spreading debris as far as two miles away.
The risk faced by the population of West is widespread. West is a small town of 2,800 people, yet nearly 7,000 chemical facilities around the country pose a risk to a population of 1,000 in a “worst-case scenario.” Ninety could impact more than 1 million people. Four other explosions at workplaces have occurred since the one in West with a combined death toll of four.
Overall, the rate of workplace accidents and deaths is very high. More than 4,600 workers were killed on the job in 2011, which comes to 13 a day and is more than the lives lost in the Iraq War. There were also 6.8 million work-related injuries and illnesses. These cost society billions a year due to medical and indirect expenses — $250 billion in 2007 alone.