Chemical Safety:

Actions Needed to Improve Federal Oversight of Facilities with Ammonium Nitrate

GAO-14-274: Published: May 19, 2014. Publicly Released: May 21, 2014.

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What GAO Found

Federal data provide insight into the number of facilities in the United States with ammonium nitrate but do not provide a complete picture because of reporting exemptions and other data limitations. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) do not require facilities to report their ammonium nitrate holdings. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) requires facilities with certain quantities of ammonium nitrate to report their holdings for security purposes. While the total number of facilities in the United States with ammonium nitrate is unknown, as of August 2013, at least 1,300 facilities in 47 states reported to DHS that they had reportable quantities of ammonium nitrate. Federal law also requires certain facilities to report their ammonium nitrate holdings to state and local authorities for emergency planning purposes, but these data are not routinely shared with federal agencies. According to EPA, states are not required to report these data to federal agencies, and each state determines how to share its data. As part of an Executive Order on Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security issued in August 2013, federal agencies are exploring options for improving data sharing, but this work is not yet complete.

OSHA and EPA provide limited oversight of facilities that have ammonium nitrate. OSHA's regulations include provisions for the storage of ammonium nitrate, but the agency has done little outreach to increase awareness of these regulations within the fertilizer industry, a primary user. In addition, the regulations have not been significantly revised since 1971 and allow storage of ammonium nitrate in wooden buildings, which could increase the risk of fire and explosion. Other OSHA and EPA chemical safety regulations—which require facilities to complete hazard assessments, use procedures to prevent and respond to accidents, and conduct routine compliance audits—do not apply to ammonium nitrate. Furthermore, although OSHA targets worksites in certain industries for inspection, its inspection programs do not target facilities with ammonium nitrate and, according to OSHA officials, information on these facilities is not available to them to use for targeting the facilities. International chemical safety guidance suggests authorities should provide facilities information on how regulatory requirements can be met and periodically inspect them.

GAO reviewed approaches to overseeing facilities with ammonium nitrate in Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, selected in part based on recommendations from chemical safety experts. According to foreign officials and government documents, these countries require facilities with specified quantities of ammonium nitrate to assess its risk and develop plans or policies to prevent chemical accidents. For example, Canadian officials said facilities with 22 tons or more of ammonium nitrate are required to complete a risk assessment and an emergency plan. Some countries' storage requirements also restrict the use of wood to store ammonium nitrate. For example, officials told GAO that France restricted the use of wood for storing ammonium nitrate fertilizer after several incidents involving ammonium nitrate fertilizer, and German officials told GAO that certain ammonium nitrate and ammonium nitrate-based preparations must be separated from combustible materials by brick or concrete walls.

Why GAO Did This Study

In April 2013, about 30 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer detonated during a fire at a facility in West, Texas, killing at least 14 people and damaging nearby schools, homes, and a nursing home. This incident raised concerns about the risks posed by similar facilities across the country. OSHA and EPA play a central role in protecting workers and communities from chemical accidents, and DHS administers a chemical facility security program. GAO was asked to examine oversight of ammonium nitrate facilities in the United States and other countries. This report addresses (1) how many facilities have ammonium nitrate in the United States, (2) how OSHA and EPA regulate and oversee facilities that have ammonium nitrate, and (3) what approaches selected other countries have adopted for regulating and overseeing facilities with ammonium nitrate. GAO analyzed available federal data and data from selected states with high use of ammonium nitrate; reviewed federal laws and regulations; and interviewed government officials, chemical safety experts, and industry representatives in the United States and selected countries.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is recommending that federal agencies improve data sharing, OSHA and EPA consider revising their related regulations to cover ammonium nitrate, and OSHA conduct outreach to the fertilizer industry and target high risk facilities for inspection. DHS, EPA, and OSHA agreed with GAO's recommendations and suggested technical changes, which GAO incorporated as appropriate.

For more information, contact Revae Moran at (202) 512-7215 or moranr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS and EPA have shared data to identify potentially noncompliant facilities. In addition, the Working Group added facility data from federal and state data systems, including DHS Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards data, to an existing online database managed by EPA, called the Facility Registry Service. This database allows users to compare facilities across agency systems, including chemical data and compliance history. DHS also developed a permission-based system to allow government agencies to access chemical facility data, which will improve data sharing efforts.

    Recommendation: To improve federal oversight of facilities with ammonium nitrate, that the Secretary of Labor, the Administrator of EPA, and the Secretary of Homeland Security, as part of their efforts as members of the Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group established by the Executive Order issued in August 2013, should develop and implement methods of improving data sharing among federal agencies and with states.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As of August 2015, OSHA officials said the Working Group added facility data from federal and state data systems, including OSHA data, to an existing online database managed by EPA, called the Facility Registry Service. OSHA officials reported that the Working Group completed the integration of chemical facility data sets, totaling over 300,000 records, and has assigned each facility under a single EPA identifier. As a result, federal agencies and other stakeholders can now search and view nearly all chemical facility safety and security information submitted to the federal government.

    Recommendation: To improve federal oversight of facilities with ammonium nitrate, that the Secretary of Labor, the Administrator of EPA, and the Secretary of Homeland Security, as part of their efforts as members of the Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group established by the Executive Order issued in August 2013, should develop and implement methods of improving data sharing among federal agencies and with states.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA and DHS have shared data to identify potentially noncompliant facilities. In addition, EPA updated its online database called the Facility Registry Service, to include relevant OSHA Process Safety Management and DHS Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards data. This database allows users to compare facilities across agency systems, including chemical data and compliance history.

    Recommendation: To improve federal oversight of facilities with ammonium nitrate, that the Secretary of Labor, the Administrator of EPA, and the Secretary of Homeland Security, as part of their efforts as members of the Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group established by the Executive Order issued in August 2013, should develop and implement methods of improving data sharing among federal agencies and with states.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In December 2014, OSHA issued a memo to its compliance officers with technical guidance on enforcing OSHA ammonium nitrate storage requirements in 29 CFR 1910.109(i). According to OSHA officials, the content of the memo was designed to help compliance officers identify hazards and suggested abatement techniques when conducting inspections of ammonium nitrate storage facilities. OSHA plans to initiate local emphasis programs in fiscal year 2015 that focus on the storage and handling of ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia at fertilizer facilities. Once initiated, a local emphasis program requires a focused inspection program with facilities chosen at random from the list of facilities in appropriate industry codes. We will close this recommendation when the local emphasis programs are initiated.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to take steps to identify high risk facilities working with ammonium nitrate and develop options to target them for inspection.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: On December 9, 2013, OSHA issued a Request for Information seeking, among other things, comments on potential revisions to its Process Safety Management standard and its Explosives and Blasting Agents Standard. The Request for Information specifically invited comments on safe work practices for storing, handling, and managing ammonium nitrate and on regulatory requirements to improve its approach to preventing the hazards associated with ammonium nitrate. EPA published a Request for Information on July 31, 2014, to begin the process of information collection needed to update the agency's Risk Management Program regulations and related programs. As of August 2015, OSHA reports it has initiated a Small Business Regulatory Flexibility Review Act panel to gather feedback from small businesses on updating its Process Safety Management (PSM) regulation. During the panel, OSHA will discuss the option of adding ammonium nitrate to the list of chemicals covered by PSM. Revisions to OSHA's Explosive and Blasting Agents Standard that would enhance coverage of ammonium nitrate are considered as an alternate to PSM coverage. We will close this recommendation to OSHA when the agencies decide what action to take as a result of the requests for information.

    Recommendation: To strengthen federal oversight of facilities with ammonium nitrate, the Secretary of Labor and the Administrator of EPA should direct OSHA and EPA, respectively, to consider revising their related regulations to cover ammonium nitrate and jointly develop a plan to require high risk facilities with ammonium nitrate to assess the risks and implement safeguards to prevent accidents involving this chemical.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: EPA published a Request For Information in the Federal Register on July 31, 2014, to begin the process of information collection needed to update the agency's RMP regulations and related programs. As of June 2015, EPA reports that a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is being prepared. In November 2015, EPA initiated a Small Business Regulatory Flexibility Review Act panel to get feedback from small businesses on updating its Risk Management Program regulation. We will close this recommendation to EPA when the agency decides what action to take as a result of the request for information.

    Recommendation: To strengthen federal oversight of facilities with ammonium nitrate, the Secretary of Labor and the Administrator of EPA should direct OSHA and EPA, respectively, to consider revising their related regulations to cover ammonium nitrate and jointly develop a plan to require high risk facilities with ammonium nitrate to assess the risks and implement safeguards to prevent accidents involving this chemical.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: On December 9, 2013, OSHA issued a Request for Information (RFI) seeking, among other things, comments on potential revisions to the Explosives and Blasting Agents Standard, which includes ammonium nitrate storage requirements. The RFI specifically invited comments on safe work practices for storing, handling, and managing ammonium nitrate and on regulatory requirements to improve its approach to preventing the hazards associated with ammonium nitrate. As of August 2015, OSHA reports it has initiated a Small Business Regulatory Flexibility Review Act panel to gather feedback from small businesses on updating its Process Safety Management (PSM) regulation. During the panel, OSHA will discuss the option of adding ammonium nitrate to the list of chemicals covered by PSM. Revisions to OSHA's Explosive and Blasting Agents Standard that would enhance coverage of ammonium nitrate are considered as an alternate to PSM coverage. We will close this recommendation when the agency decides what action to take as a result of the request for information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to consider updating regulations for the storage of ammonium nitrate taking into consideration, as appropriate, other related standards and current practices.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2015, OSHA formed an alliance with national fertilizer industry associations and other organizations that is focused on developing and disseminating information on the safe storage and handling of ammonium nitrate and other fertilizers. OSHA held the first implementation team meeting on April 21, 2015. Alliance members are helping OSHA update the Agency's Ammonia Refrigeration Tool, helping to raise awareness of OSHA and EPA rulemaking and enforcement activities, and distributing materials on the hazards associated with as well as the safe handling and storage of ammonium nitrate to employers and workers, and to the surrounding communities that would be affected by incidents.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to extend OSHA's outreach to the fertilizer industry. For example, OSHA could work with the fertilizer industry to develop and disseminate informational materials related to storage of ammonium nitrate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

 

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