Two Years Later: Texas Explosion is Catalyst for Change

For the ammonia and chemical industry, the ammonium nitrate explosion in West, Texas, in 2013 has served as a catalyst for change, causing several government agencies to examine their policies and update safety regulations. Now, regulatory agencies are drafting requirements for a number of chemical industries that will require them to follow the Process Safety Management guidelines—requirements that the industrial refrigeration industry has had to follow for years.

“If we hadn’t had the accident in West, Texas, there wouldn’t have been an executive order issued by the Obama Administration then there wouldn’t be a working group looking at modernizing policies and procedures,” said Lowell Randel, vice president of government and legal affairs for IIAR. Randel pointed out that the tragic accident led to increased scrutiny on sectors of the chemical industry that were previously not subject to safety programs that the ammonia refrigeration industry has followed for decades.

The explosion, which was caused by ammonium nitrate, occurred in a part of the farm industry that is not currently subject to some of OSHA and EPA’s regulations. However, the media scrutiny that followed the event made it clear the public is largely uneducated about the safety record of the industrial refrigeration industry, which has one of the best safety records of all American chemical industries. In fact, in the West, Texas, explosion, the tanks that were holding anhydrous ammonia on the site remained intact before and after the explosion.

The refrigeration industry is heavily regulated and must meet very stringent and formalized safety standards. Agencies are considering the application of these standards for other chemical users, like farm installations that use ammonia compounds in hopes of preventing future disasters that result in scrutiny of all chemical industries. “With respect to ammonium nitrate, it has not been subject to these programs in the past,” Randel said.

While some of the regulatory proposals surrounding safety directly relate to the West, Texas, incident, some don’t. “This is an opportunity for agencies to explore potential policy changes they’ve maybe been thinking about for some time but haven’t had the opportunity on which to act,” he said.

The new regulations address a number of areas, including restrictions to retail exemptions and expansion of the PSM reach that deals with chemical concentrations. Randel said the changes will also put more emphasis on engagement with first responders and the coordination between federal agencies as well as data sharing among federal agencies.

IIAR has been communicating with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency on many of the proposed changes, because they will have significant impact on IIAR’s membership, Randel said. He added that he believes the EPA will most likely move forward with their proposals first. “This is a high priority for the Obama administration and they will want to see movement in these changes before the end of the administration,” he said.