Washington, DC — The Obama administration has either abandoned or slow-tracked all of its own proposals to prevent major industrial plant accidents, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, workers in and residents surrounding industrial chemical plants remain as vulnerable to explosions, deadly fires and toxic spills as under the Bush administration.
A prime example is combustible dust from finely powdered food (such as sugar or grain), wood, metals and chemicals. These dust explosions happen like clockwork, with at least 35 explosions killing 26 and injuring another 128 just since 2008. That year, Senator Barack Obama declared:
“We must do everything we can to protect America's workers and prevent terrible accidents, like the deadly explosion at Imperial Sugar earlier this year, that occur as a result of combustible dust. It's long past time that OSHA issue a standard to prevent these kinds of accidents, and if the agency will not do so, then Congress must legislate one as soon as possible.”
Under President Obama, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) took up proposed rulemaking in 2009. In its last regulatory agenda, however, the Obama administration shifted the combustible dust rulemaking from a proposed rule back to the pre-rule stage.
“Candidate Obama would be disgusted with the performance of President Obama on industrial safety,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “It is outrageous that after nearly six years these guys have failed to get their regulatory act together to address even elementary dangers, like combustible dust.”
Another key initiative was the Injury and Illness Prevention Program requiring operators to affirmatively identify and reduce hazards. In spite of the fact that 29 states have some element of this system, in its most recent regulatory agenda OSHA moved this proposed prevention rule into its “long-term action” category.
Perhaps the biggest reversal is the Obama administration’s abandonment of a proposal from its Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) to require refineries and other plants to use inherently safer technology as an operating permit condition similar to the approach used the U.K., Australia and Norway. Yet in a series of recent steps, the Obama administration has shrank away from its prior support:
- In May, a presidentially-commissioned multi-agency report following the massive fertilizer explosion in West, Texas Fertilizer rejects this safety plan except as a voluntary measure;
- With the exception of its Chairman, Obama CSB appointees have opposed the safety plan, even blocking adoption of its own draft report on the August 2012 fire and explosion at Chevron’s refinery in Richmond, California ;and
- In an especially deflating move, the National Institute on Occupational Safety & Health quietly withdrew its previous comments supporting inherently safer technology standards
“President Obama has pledged to act where Congress has not but in the realm of regulations he has yet to get out of the starting gate,” added Ruch, noting the similar absence of rulemaking to protect workers from exposure to chemicals. “Despites its rhetoric, when it comes to health and safety the Obama administration is guilty of the same regulatory neglect as its predecessor.”