Like many, the Fertilizer Institute, a trade group, has extended its condolences to the people of West, Texas, where a blast at a fertilizer plant Wednesday evening killed at least a dozen and injured about 200.
The Washington-based institute, however, has lobbied against legislation that would require high-risk chemical facilities – including some of its members – to consider using safer substances and processes to lower the risk of catastrophic accidents and make such facilities less inviting to terrorists.
Senate records show that the institute has spent $7.4 million on lobbying since 2006, some of it in opposition to legislation like a 2009 bill that passed the House but never became law.
A spokeswoman for the institute did not respond to requests for comment Friday from the Center for Public Integrity. The organization says on its website that it supports existing rules enforced by the Department of Homeland Security and opposes any expansion of the rules “to mandate inherently safer technologies.”
In a 2011 letter to the chairman and ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, the institute and nine other groups maintained that “America’s agricultural industry has limited resources available to address all security related matters and it is very important that those resources are spent wisely to coincide with the appropriate level of risk for each particular facility…”
The groups said they supported continuation of the Homeland Security Department’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program, begun in 2007, and “oppose any federal requirement to use inherently safer technology (IST)… If an IST requirement is put in place for the nation’s agricultural industry it could jeopardize the availability of lower-cost sources of fertilizers or certain agricultural pesticides used by farmers and ranchers.”
(An example of IST: Replacing poisonous chlorine gas at a water treatment plant with ultraviolet light).
CFATS sets broad security standards for chemical facilities and requires them to prepare “vulnerability assessments,” which are reviewed by federal regulators.
Environmentalists, worker advocates and others say the program is riddled with loopholes. It bars the Homeland Security Department, for example, from requiring any “particular security measure,” exempts thousands of facilities and doesn’t allow for unannounced inspections.
A September 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office raised questions about the department’s management of CFATS, pointing to an internal memo in 2011 that claimed the program suffered from “a lack of planning, poor internal controls, and a workforce whose skills were inadequate to fulfill the program’s mission…”
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., has introduced legislation again this year to close the CFATS loopholes. Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace, argues that the Environmental Protection Agency already has the power to do so.
The EPA should steer chemical companies “toward disaster prevention rather than risk management by giving facilities a requirement to reduce the consequences of a catastrophe like [the Texas explosion],” Hind said. “They would be free to choose how they reduced those consequences.”
In the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the EPA drafted legislation along the lines of what Hind described. The Bush White House shot it down.
Christine Todd Whitman, the EPA’s administrator at the time, joined others last year in urging the agency to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to address shortcomings in CFATS, saying “millions of Americans [are] at risk.”
An EPA spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
It’s unclear whether West Fertilizer Co., the plant that blew up this week, is among the 4,458 facilities nationwide that the Homeland Security Department considers high-risk.
The company stored anhydrous ammonia, a toxic gas that becomes flammable under certain conditions. More than 10.5 billion pounds of the chemical is kept at 7,378 facilities nationwide, according to data compiled by The Right-to-Know Network, a project of the nonprofit Center for Effective Government.
The West plant also stored ammonium nitrate, which can explode spectacularly if combined with fuel and set aflame. The compound was used by domestic terrorists to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and all but wiped out Texas City, Texas, in a port accident in 1947.