Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Fertilizer Industry Groups Have Been Lobbying Against Safety Regulations

While it’s still unclear what caused the explosion at a West, Texas fertilizer facility last week, authorities have already ruled out criminal activity. And it is clear that while seven different regulatory agencies were responsible for overseeing the plant, and in fact five out of those seven have previously cited and/or fined it, the lack of coordination or concerted effort meant that it slipped through the cracks.

But it wasn’t just that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was perpetually underfunded and understaffed, nor that the Texas Department of State Health Services didn’t pass the plant’s report of huge amounts of ammonium on to federal regulators. The Sunlight Foundation has found that industry groups such as the Agricultural Retailers Association, which represents suppliers of fertilizers and pesticides, and the Fertilizer Institute have actively worked to weaken potential safety regulations:

Since 1998, the specific issues that appear most frequently in [the Agricultural Retailers Association and Fertilizer Institute’s] lobbying disclosure reports are bills dealing with the safety and security of chemical facilities. During that period, the Agricultural Retailers Association has spent a cumulative $2.9 million on lobbying while the Fertilizer Institute has spent even more, some $14.4 million, according to data in Influence Explorer.

In a lobbying disclosure on file with the Senate, the Agricultural Retailers Association clearly states its opposition to EPA regulation of fertilizer safety. The group listed, “Work with EPA to clarify their new Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act interpretation of fertilizer retailer to exclude facilities that blend fertilizer,” among its specific lobbying issues, adding that it “Oppose[d] EPA’s efforts to consider agricultural retailer who custom blend fertilizer as fertilizer manufacturers for the purposes of EPCRA.” [...]

West Fertilizer Co. was a retailer that blended fertilizer, according to a report from Reuters.

In fact, West Fertilizer Co. failed to report to the Department of Homeland Security how much ammonium nitrate it had on hand, despite the fact that it had far more than is required to report. The only report it did make of the chemicals it was storing at the facility was with the Texas Department of State Health Services, the very reporting these lobbying groups have been seeking to do away with. Without that requirement it may not have had to give a full accounting of all the chemicals it was storing, many of them extremely hazardous.

The Agricultural Retailers Association also opposes Inherently Safer Technology requirements, such as mandating the use of chemical processing procedures, equipment, protection, and substances that could improve safety, and the ability for citizens or third parties to bring lawsuits. Industry groups looking to reduce safety regulations also have friends in Congress who have been advancing a bill to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency’s powers to regulate major chemical sites.

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