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President Obama & Private Sector Try To Improve Safety After Deadly Explosion in West

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WEST (CBS 11 NEWS) - The deadly West Fertilizer plant explosion left behind a level of destruction in the town that has never been seen before across the country.

On Thursday, President Obama issued an executive order to strengthen safety at chemical plants in an attempt to prevent another disaster.

West’s Mayor, Tommy Muska, applauds the move. “I think it’s a very positive first step the President took.”

In his Executive Order, President Obama lays out timetables for federal agencies to study ways to improve safety at chemical facilities like West.

By September 15th, the President wants the EPA, the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security to develop a pilot program for best practices on chemical facility safety. By November 1st, Mr. Obama wants the agencies to develop a list of potential proposals for the safe storage, handling, and sale of ammonium nitrate.

The West Fertilizer Company, shown from the air, lies in ruins on April 18, 2013 in West, Texas. (credit: Getty Images)

The West Fertilizer Company, shown from the air, lies in ruins on April 18, 2013 in West, Texas. (credit: Getty Images)

It was that chemical, stored in highly combustile bins and building, that exploded after the West facility caught fire.

By next May, the President wants the government to create a standard to identify and respond to risks in chemical facilities before disaster strikes.

Safety experts say the President’s efforts will likely accelerate improvements as it can take up to seven years to revise regulatory standards.

Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California, who held a hearing on chemical plant safety, applauded the President’s executive order saying, “…This progress shows that when we use our mandated oversight role to solve serious problems facing the American people – and the President agrees with our solutions – we can move forward without changing laws to protect our families and communities…”

Rafael Moure-Eraso, Chairman of the Chemical Safety Board, which studies and tries to prevent accidents, says, “The West accident showed a particularly glaring need for comprehensive regulation of reactive chemical hazards and in particular ammonium nitrate.”

But Josh Havens, a spokesman for Governor Rick Perry says, “…The most important thing to the people of West, Texas right now is getting that community back on its feet as quickly as possible, and approving the state’s appeal for a major disaster declaration is the more appropriate announcement the White House needs to be making at this time…”

Neil Carman, a former chemical plant inspector for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, who’s now a member of the Sierra Club, says he’s not impressed by the President’s Executive Order.

Carman says “It’s a bit disappointing because we’ve had so many accidents, and we need to take steps to prevent them now, and we don’t need any more study.” Carman says the EPA can act now and further regulate ammonium nitrate. He believes it will be up to Congress to pass new regulations.

Mayor Muska believes one simple solution is to require all facilities that store large amounts of chemicals, like the one in West, to have sprinklers. He says he wouldn’t grant any exemptions.

Regarding the West plant, Muska believes, “If it had been sprinkled, the fine would not have engulfed the place. It wouldn’t have exploded and we wouldn’t be talking.”

Experts say the agriculture industry isn’t waiting for the government to add regulations. It’s already looking in the mirror to see what it can do better itself. The Agricultural Retailers Association and The Fertilizer Institute are establishing what’s called a Fertilizer Code of Practice Initiatives. They’re setting-up their own uniform safety guidelines for handling, storing, and distributing fertilizer products, and third-party inspections to ensure compliance.

Back in West, the Mayor says he hopes the government won’t go too far in adding regulations.

Muska says, “We’re a rural community. The farmers don’t need anymore fees imposed on them because of regulation.”

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