Hearing on Preventing Potential Chemical Threats and Improving Safety: Oversight of the President's Executive Order on Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security
March 6, 2014
(Remarks as prepared for delivery)
Today, this Committee continues its important oversight of efforts to improve the safety and security of chemical facilities across the country. The long list of chemical disasters in recent years demonstrates that urgent action is needed to reduce risk and protect the safety of our communities. Let me list just a few examples.
There was the August 2012 pipe failure at a refinery in Richmond, California, which released flammable petroleum gases and formed a vapor cloud that ignited and injured six workers. Toxic smoke from the fire caused approximately 15,000 people from the surrounding area to seek medical treatment.
In April 2013, a massive explosion and fire in West, Texas, destroyed a fertilizer distribution plant and caused widespread destruction. Fifteen people died, hundreds of people were injured, and homes, businesses, and three unoccupied schools were damaged or destroyed.
And in June 2013, an explosion of a vapor cloud of flammable petroleum gases at a petrochemical refinery in Louisiana released more than 62,000 pounds of toxic chemicals, caused a serious fire, injured more than one hundred people and killed two workers.
We held a full Committee oversight hearing in June 2013, which highlighted the tragic loss of life and injuries caused by these disasters. We heard from safety experts, workers, and leading researchers, all of whom offered ways to improve our nation's chemical safety oversight and prevent future tragedies.
I spoke with the President about the need to act and he took a very important step forward. In August 2013, the President issued Executive Order 13650 - Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security, which established a Working Group to undertake a comprehensive review of Federal chemical safety and security programs and develop recommendations for improving these programs.
In August 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) issued an advisory on the safe storage, handling, and management of ammonium nitrate, which caused the West, Texas explosion.
Although these are important first steps, much more remains to be done.
In fact, yet another chemical facility disaster occurred in January in West Virginia, which brought to light an entirely new set of issues - the threat that poorly maintained chemical storage facilities pose to our nation's drinking water. An above-ground chemical storage facility near Charleston, West Virginia, failed, leaking thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals into the Elk River - a source of drinking water for over 300,000 people. This spill has terrible costs that continue to impact families and small business owners in West Virginia.
I have written to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to request that the failures in the system brought to light in the West Virginia spill be specifically addressed by the President's Working Group. I will enter a copy of my request into the record today.
I am working with Senator Manchin on legislation to better protect our drinking water sources from threats posed by chemical facilities like the one in West Virginia. I am working with Senator Vitter and am hopeful that he will join us in this effort.
The ever-growing list of catastrophic failures should be a wakeup call for all of us, and we must take steps to ensure that similar disasters never happen again. The good news is that under existing law, EPA has the authority to begin to strengthen safety at facilities that handle dangerous chemicals.
In 1986, Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act to enhance planning to address chemical disasters. And in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, Congress required risk management planning to help save people's lives at facilities that handle dangerous chemicals. The Clean Water Act contains legal authorities that address spill prevention and control, but this authority has primarily been used to address oil-related hazards.
Federal safety and health officials must use all available tools to protect the health and safety of people working in and living near chemical facilities.
We are here today to ensure that the Executive Order Working Group identifies ways to make real, measurable improvements in the oversight of chemical facilities. I expect to hear from our EPA witness regarding actions the Working Group has taken to date and the issues under consideration for future action.
A central focus of this hearing today is to check in on the progress of the Working Group so far, and to make clear that we must move forward as rapidly as possible. Delay is unacceptable.
I also look forward to an update from the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) regarding its ongoing investigations into these chemical disasters and to learn how the Working Group is incorporating CSB's recommendations.
We will also hear about efforts in my home State of California to improve refinery safety, which were launched after the Richmond refinery disaster, and how a similar approach can be applied on the Federal level.
Federal agencies and industry must act quickly to adopt safety measures that can save lives before another tragedy happens.