North Carolina Fertilizer Plants Could Claim Arcane Exemption to Inspections

Several weeks ago, residents in Statesville, home to North Carolina’s largest fertilizer plant, expressed deep concern following the explosion in Texas that killed 15 people.

Now, our Winston-Salem workers’ compensation lawyers understand that those residents – and all who live and work near fertilizer plants – may have additional reason to worry.
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A recent report by the non-profit journalism group Center for Public Integrity reveals that the operators of the Texas fertilizer plant are now claiming an old exemption allowed it to fly under the radar of federal and state environmental regulators by sidestepping inspections and workplace safety mandates.

The company’s owner had filed something known as a retail exemption, as part of a streamlined prevention program. This is a company-claimed exemption that essentially says that because dangerous chemicals are sold chiefly to “end users” – usually farmers – the firm should be allowed to avoid any form of stricter regulation.

It’s not certain how many companies claim this 20-year-old exemption, but we do know that the Texas firm is is not the only one that does.

For example, one company that was responsible for storing a type of toxic gas wrote a notice to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration back in 2005, indicating that it fell under this retail exemption.

Those within the industry called it a fundamental flaw as it pertains to workplace safety, as it allows facilities to simply avoid oversight – and government regulators allow them to do it.

The exemption is listed in OSHA’s Process Safety Management Standard. This standard requires firms storing large amounts of substances that are hazardous to not only have in place preventative plans and take precautions to avoid workplace safety but to submit to regular inspections to ensure it.

The plant in Texas, which stored huge amounts of anhydrous ammonia, would unquestionably fall under this standard – but for the exemption. Of course, when this exemption was created, the Fertilizer Institute voiced its firm support of the measure.

And when the rule was finalized, the institute filed a request with OSHA, asking for written confirmation that the standard wouldn’t apply to sites that blend and store fertilizer for sale to end users.

OSHA responded in the affirmative, saying that the exemption would apply so long as more than half of the firm’s sales were geared toward end users. But what’s especially troubling about this exemption is that if a company claims it, OSHA does not check to see if it’s even valid.

So workers, emergency crews and nearby residents could be at huge risk for serious injury or death – all based on a self-purported claim that may or may not be true.

Still, the incident in Texas has even the institute wondering if something needs to change.

In a written statement released to the CPI, the the institute stated that while the Texas blast was still under investigation, the institute planned to re-examine whether that exemption is necessary or whether it may expose other facilities to these same kinds of hazards.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Residents living near fertilizer plant express concerns following Texas explosion, April 18, 2013, By David Kernodle, News 14 Charlotte

‘Retail exemption’ shields some fertilizer facilities from stringent safety inspections, rules, May 2, 2013, By Chris Hamby, The Center for Public Integrity

More Blog Entries:
Can Agricultural Workers Make Workers’ Compensation Claims? April 29, 2013, Winston Salem Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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