For EPA, Friend Like Boxer Proves Enemy Over Chemical Safety

Photograph by Michael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News via AP Images

A fire burns at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, after an explosion on April 17, 2013.

Well, that was awkward.

For President Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency, getting irritated questions from lawmakers about evasive answers or regulatory efforts is nothing new.

But, at a Senate hearing to probe the explosion at a West, Texas fertilizer plant, the senator literally huffing and looking around at aides in exasperation at the answers she got from an EPA witness was one of the agency’s staunchest defenders, California Democrat Barbara Boxer.

As soon as Barry Breen, the deputy assistant administrator of the EPA responsible for emergency response, finished his testimony about the agency’s handling of the chemical safety, Boxer lit into him.

“I don’t sense in your voice any kind of shock or desire to address these issues,” Boxer told Breen. “I am unsympathetic to the attitude I hear, which is a lack of urgency.”

Then Boxer asked Breen why EPA didn’t adopt a decade-old recommendation from the Chemical Safety Board that it require disclosure and risk plans for facilities with ammonium nitrate, and Breen questioned whether the board had really recommended that.

Unfortunately for Breen, Boxer’s staff then handed her the 2002 report, and she read the panel’s actual recommendation to the hearing.

She also asked him about a petition from health groups, environmentalists and unions that it force chemical plants to adopt an approach known as Inherently Safer Technologies.

“Inherently Safer Technologies has some attraction,” Breen said, without saying how the ageny would act on the petition. “We are looking into it as well.”

That was not enough of a commitment from Boxer.

“We are going to work with you and, if we have to, against you, to make sure this happens,” Boxer concluded.

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