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Chemical plants need fair safety guidelines

October 1, 2018

The state response to the tragic explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, five years ago has been to mostly ignore it. The last thing this industry needs now is a similar attitude from the federal government. But a provision in the current farm bill in Congress could exempt the entire chemical manufacturing industry from some basic safety rules. Members of Congress from Texas should be particularly aware of that folly and make sure it is removed from the bill.

The provision in question would create a broad exemption from Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards for managing hazardous chemicals. Worst of all, it could have “the unintended consequence” of allowing a large chemical plant to evade the rules by claiming to be a retail store.

After the explosion in West, which killed 15 people (including many first-responders) and injured more than 200, OSHA tried to clarify existing rules to make it clear that chemical plants would face tighter scrutiny. An investigation by the Dallas Morning News in 2013 found more than 70 plants in Texas that were similar to the West Fertilizer Co.

But a lawsuit by the fertilizer industry slowed OSHA’s effort, the election of Donald Trump as president basically stopped it. Trump wants to slash regulations, not increase them. No one supports unnecessary red tape, but certain facilities should have high safety requirements — like a fertilizer plant that could explode if it were mismanaged.

The $430 billion farm bill is headed toward final vote soon, with November elections looming and a congressional adjournment preceding them. This issue needs action soon or it could become law almost by default.

Regardless of what happens in Congress, the Texas Legislature should consider better safety regulations in the upcoming session that begins in January. After the West explosion, the state fire marshal’s office still lacked authority to carry out basic safety inspections at some facilities.

The chemical industry in Texas has a good safety record overall. But that very fact argues for reasonable regulations. If plants are already operating as they should, they won’t have to change anything or worry about inspections.

In so many cases like this, whether at chemical plants or oil refineries, companies do what they have been doing for years, and fortunately nothing goes wrong. But when a tragic accident or explosion occurs, it only makes sense to review what happened and why. Instead of waiting for the next disaster, let’s try to prevent it.

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