Members of a federal government working group tasked with making the chemical industry safer got an earful Wednesday during a public meeting in Baton Rouge.
Environmental group representatives and community activists asked for the group to require chemical facilities to provide better public notification during accidents, emphasized the need for more enforceable regulations to promote safer practices and to find ways to get the chemical industry to look for ways to avoid problems in the first place.
This was the 13th listening session the federal Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group has held around the country to gather public input since the group was formed through an August executive order by President Barack Obama.
The executive order was a reaction to an explosion April 17 at West Fertilizer in West, Texas, where 12 firefighters and emergency responders were killed, at least two other people were killed and more than 200 were injured, according to a Chemical Safety Board senate testimony in June.
Louisiana has had its own share of chemical facility disasters including the June 13 Williams Olefins explosion that left two dead and 114 injured at the Geismar facility, followed closely by another incident in Ascension Parish at CF Industries that left one man dead and injured seven.
The chemical industry is supportive of many parts of the executive order that include better communication and safety cooperation, said Edward Flynn, vice president and director of health, safety and security with the Louisiana Chemical Association.
“I’m not suggesting we have a perfect record here or elsewhere,” he said.
However, he said, companies are taking steps to work better together to get to root causes of any accidents that happen, share lessons learned and train a new generation of chemical engineers on the importance of safety through a program at LSU.
When asked by the board if the industry supports a section of the executive order that has to do with possible new regulations, Flynn said industry representatives are still compiling their comments about that section.
The working group that met in Baton Rouge on Wednesday is co-chaired by representatives of the Department of Homeland Security, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Labor.
The group has been given the goal to come up with recommendations and suggested regulations to make the chemical industry safer and more secure, said Jordan Barab, working group co-chairman representing Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is under the Department of Labor.
Before the Wednesday meeting started, the Green Army, a coalition of environmental groups organized by retired Army Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré, held a news conference to outline what they’d like to see this federal working group accomplish.
Honoré said the coalition wants to see chemical companies bonded and insured so they’re able pay for any damage from an accident, have better siren warning systems to alert nearby residents of problems and for the facilities to have annual public meetings within the community.
These meetings could help communicate to people warning signs of a problem, what to do if there is a release of pollution, who to call and more safety information.
There also needs to be an automatic response system that gets sent to a centralized facility where federal agencies can immediately respond, Honoré said.
“Right now, we’re in the dark,” he said.
In addition, the group called on the chemical industry to start moving to safer chemicals and to update the processes they use, said Darryl Malek-Wiley, of the Sierra Club.
“It’s time to think about green chemistry,” he said. “Make those products safer and safer for the community.”
He added it’s also time to stop talking about how no pollution gets past the fence line around a facility after an accident.
“A chain-link fence is not magical. Pollution doesn’t stop at that fence line,” he said.
Many of the concerns expressed Wednesday were familiar to the federal working group and echoed what they’ve been hearing around the country.
Mathy Stanislaus, working group member from the EPA, said the big concerns have been making sure local responders are prepared for what they could encounter at chemical facilities, improving emergency notification systems and providing clearer information to the public and within agencies.
Barab said the working group will finalize its report in the coming months, then will put together a working plan to start making steps toward the ultimate goal of making chemical facilities, and the communities around them, safer.