Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Update on West Fertilizer Hearing

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has updated their web site with additional information about tomorrow’s hearing on “Oversight of Federal Risk Management and Emergency Planning Programs to Prevent and Address Chemical Threats, Including the Events Leading Up to the Explosions in West, TX and Geismar, LA”.

The witness list is now up on the web site. Witnesses include:

• Rafael Moure-Eraso, Chemical Safety Board;
• Barry Breen, Environmental Protection Agency;
• Randall Sawyer, Contra Costa County, CA;
• Rick Webre, Ascension Parish, LA;
• Paul Orum, Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters;
• M. Sam Mannan, Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center; and
• Kim Nibarger, United Steelworkers International Union

Well, this hearing is certainly not going to be about the West Fertilizer explosion; no one (with the exception of Mr.Moure-Eraso) has anything to do with the regulation of West Fertilizer, the emergency response to the accident, or the investigation of the incident. It’s not even about the Geismar, LA explosion; the sole Louisiana representative on the witness list is from the State Department of Homeland Security, mainly an emergency response agency.

As I noted in an earlier blog post about this hearing this is going to be a hearing about inherently safer technology (IST). Both Orum and Mannan have a long history of being very intelligent advocates for the implementation of IST; Orum more from a political point of view and Mannan from a chemical process point of view. Contra Costa County has an effective regulatory program stongly encouraging IST implementation. The United Steelworkers have also been long time political advocates for the mandatory implementation of IST programs.

I certainly believe that a coherent discussion of IST as part of a chemical safety program is important. The use of these two particular incidents, however, seems to be particularly inappropriate particularly where IST is a code-word for chemical substitution. There is no substitute chemical for ammonium nitrate fertilizer for a distributor whose customers want ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Propylene and ethylene (we are still not sure which was at root cause of the Geismar explosion) are a basic chemical feedstocks for which there is not viable substitute.  

Sen. Boxer (D,CA), the Committee Chair, has also been a long-time proponent for mandatory IST implementation. Given that there are no IST opposition voices included on the witness list and no chemical industry representatives, I expect that this will be a very one-sided hearing that will conclude that IST is the be-all and end-all of chemical/environmental safety. That is a shame as it will only contribute to the polarization of what should be a cooperative debate on the subject.

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