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Citing Recent Tragedies, Boxer Slams EPA Over Chemical Security Rules
WASHINGTON -- A key Senate Democrat on Thursday tore into a top Environmental Protection Agency official for a lack of action aimed at protecting the public from domestic chemical threats.
Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is usually complimentary of the Obama EPA, even when making criticisms of its approach to certain issues. This time, however, Boxer pulled no punches regarding what she said was an inadequate response to recent chemical tragedies in the United States, along with decade-old recommendations that the agency tighten its chemical security regulations.
“That was the most vague testimony I’ve ever heard,” Boxer told Deputy Assistant Administrator Barry Breen after he gave a broad overview of the numerous legal provisions and regulations under which his agency might be able to take action against chemical dangers. “I don’t sense in your voice any type of shock or desire to use your authorities to move forward.”
She blasted Breen for not mentioning in his opening statement recent tragedies, including a petrochemical refinery explosion two weeks ago that killed two people and injured more than 100 in Geismar, La., and a massive fertilizer explosion that killed 14 people and leveled homes in West, Texas, in April.
The senator also cited an August 2012 fire at a refinery in Richmond, Calif., which injured six workers and caused thousands of residents to require medical treatment, among those incidents that she said necessitated more urgent action from the administration.
The Homeland Security Department has already come under fire from some lawmakers and watchdog groups for failing to regulate the plant in West under its Chemical Facility Anti-terrorism Standards.
In a statement on Thursday, Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and also a senior member of Boxer’s panel, noted there is a “great likelihood” that the Texas incident was “not the result of sabotage or attack.” Nonetheless, he said, it highlighted the significance of chemical dangers and the need for DHS to complete long-delayed rules on the handling of explosive ammonium nitrate.
Others -- including labor and environmental groups -- have argued that the law authorizing the DHS program lacks the teeth needed to address the issue and have called on EPA officials to use their authority under the Clean Air Act. The groups petitioned the agency last year to craft rules requiring businesses to switch to safer technologies when possible, but the agency has yet to act on the petition. Republicans and major industry groups have long opposed EPA involvement in chemical security, arguing DHS rules are sufficient.
Boxer on Thursday grilled Breen over the status of the agency’s response to the petition and also asked why the agency had not acted on a 2002 report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board that she said recommended tougher EPA rules on chemical risk management.
The senator said it was her understanding that it would take the agency 18 months to issue a rule if it chose to do so and asked whether the EPA officials could issue a non-binding guidance or alert regarding the chemicals at issue in the recent tragedies sooner than that. She repeatedly interrupted Breen during his responses and demanded to know the timeframe in which the agency would make a decision on what new approach to take -- if any.
“I am sympathetic to the fact that there’s work to be done but I am unsympathetic to the attitude I hear, which is a lack of urgency,” Boxer said. “Lives are being lost and recommendations were made a long time ago and nothing has happened.”
Breen said that the agency needs “to understand the issue better” before it can “establish that timeframe” for responding to the petition and other recommendation. “That’s what we’re doing now,” he said.
The agency already issued a warning on ammonium nitrate in 1997, Breen also noted, prompting further criticism from Boxer.
“You’re taking credit for something that happened in the last century?” Boxer asked. “We’re in this century -- I would like to see a new alert, a new guidance … and then potentially a rule.”
Boxer criticized Breen’s “defensive testimony” and said he was “looking back and not forward.”
In the past, some lawmakers, including the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), have sought to enhance chemical security requirements through legislation. For the moment, Boxer -- who never acted on Lautenberg’s legislation though it was within her jurisdiction -- appears focused on compelling the agency to use existing legal authority.
The senator told Breen he had the “tools” to address the issue and that her committee would continue to conduct close oversight to ensure the issue was addressed.
“I’m going to be working with you much more than you would like,” Boxer said. “We’re going to work with you and, if we have to, against you.”
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