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Sen. Boxer Calls for EPA Action on Chemical Regulations

Barbara Boxer

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held an oversight hearing last week on preventing and addressing chemical threats, focusing on the recent ammonium nitrate fertilizer plant explosion that killed 14 and injured hundreds more in West, Texas.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Committee, took no prisoners as she grilled representatives from the Chemical Safety Board and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about how each agency has responded to the explosion as well as a June 13 explosion at a chemical plant in Louisiana that killed two employees.

In her opening statement, Boxer asked those testifying to explain how the EPA, as well as state and industry officials, will work to eliminate these chemical disasters. Her focus was on the safe storage and handling of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, the prime suspect in the West accident.

Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the Chemical Safety Board, explained that, “ammonium nitrate fertilizer storage falls under a patchwork of U.Ss safety standards and guidance’s, a patchwork that has many large holes.” This has caused tensions between the agencies investigating the West explosion and prompted Boxer to call for the EPA to put the dangerous compound on their list of “Extremely Hazardous Materials,” calling it a “critical safeguard,” and report back in the next two weeks.

But the real fireworks began when Boxer turned her attention to Barry Breen, the deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response for the EPA. While she interrogated him on the EPA’s decades long failure to enforce or update key alerts and regulations, Breen gave evasive answers, defended non-action, and seemed to be looking back instead of forward.

Again and again Boxer asked Breen what the EPA is planning on doing to fix the holes in their regulations, what their timetable is, and why the EPA has waited so long to take strong action on this issue. She referenced a 2002 Chemical Safety Board report that recommended safeguards for chemicals with reactive hazards, like ammonium nitrate, as well as the fact that the EPA hasn’t issued a single alert about ammonium nitrate since 1997.

Boxer urged Breen and the EPA to respond to requests coming from both inside and outside the agency to strengthen ammonium nitrate regulations.

“I am sympathetic about the fact that there is work to be done, I am unsympathetic about the attitude that I hear. Which is a lack of urgency, cause lives are being lost and recommendations were made a long time ago and nothing is happening,” she said. Boxer requested a new alert or guidance to be released and asked Breen to follow up with her office.

Although Boxer acknowledged that new legislation would likely be necessary down the line, she implored the EPA to use the laws already on the books to ensure ammonium nitrate is produced and stored in a safe environment. “We don't need new legislation - we need action,” she said.  Her last words promised to pursue that action doggedly: “I just want to say to the EPA, I’m going to be working with you much more than you would like.”

Angela Canterbury, POGO’s director of Public Policy, said: “In this hearing, Sen. Boxer exemplified the kind of tough congressional oversight that is far too uncommon these days. It is certainly refreshing to see this issue being taken so seriously and it is our hope that the EPA does the same before any more lives are lost.”

Image from Senator Boxer.

By: Lydia Dennett
Investigator, POGO

lydia dennett Lydia Dennett is a research associate for the Project On Government Oversight. Lydia handles whistleblower intake and works on nuclear safety and security at the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

Topics: National Security

Related Content: Miscellaneous

Authors: Lydia Dennett

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