US at risk of Beirut-style explosion as regulations remain weak

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The US Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to weaken standards governing how companies store dangerous chemicals last year leaves US potentially at risk of Beirut-style explosions.

In 2013, an explosion in the city of West in Texas left 15 dead and injured 260 others after the ignition of 80,000 to 100,000 pounds of unsafely stored fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate – the same chemical responsible for the deadly explosion in the Port of Beirut last week.

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Following the explosion in Texas, new legislation was adopted by the EPA under the Obama Administration. Serious reforms that chemical manufacturers had pushed for as to how companies store dangerous, flammable chemicals and how they develop risk-management plans were set to come into effect in June 2017.

But in November 2019, the EPA, with Scott Pruitt at the helm, suspended the Obama-era guidance in his first month on the job, the Washington Post reported. He said that the 2017 regulations put too much burden on chemical companies, and the Post reported that some chemical companies and refineries had complained about them.

Since March 2019, six major chemical explosions have hit the Houston area in Texas.

But the Texas storehouse paled in comparison to the 2,750 metric tons of the substance that were responsible for the Beirut blasts that left 158 dead, over 6,000 injured and 300,000 homeless.

Ammonium nitrate is commonly used in fertilizers, but can also be used in explosives.

The explosion decimated the port and left in entire swaths of Lebanon’s capital in ruin, and estimated damages stand between $10 and 15 billion.

In Beirut, the ammonium nitrate at the port arrived in 2013, and had been stored there since. While subsequent governments knew of it and were advised to move it, no action was taken.

Speaking to AP, West city mayor Tommy Muska said “I don’t know what people were thinking about storing that stuff.”

Muska was a volunteer firefighter at the time of the West explosion.

“We don’t seem to learn that chemical is deadly,” Muska told AP. “I feel for those people in Beirut, I surely do. It brought back a lot of memories.”

The EPA’s Administrator Andrew Wheeler at the time said that the revised Risk Management Program ruling addressed concerns that releasing the location of the country’s chemical stores could provide a road map for terrorists. Wheeler said that rolling back the regulations would save $88 million a year in compliance costs.

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