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As a White House intern, Alison Winje brought her public health perspective to the administration’s response to the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion.
Alison Winje was in class at the Fielding School on April 17, 2013, the day ammonium nitrate stored at the West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas, detonated during a plant fire. As a student in the school’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences, Winje took more than a passing interest in the disaster. What she couldn’t have known was that in a few months she would be helping to craft the federal response designed to prevent future incidents - or that the experience would redefine her career plans.
The explosion in the central Texas farming town was a tragic reminder of the need to address the inherent risks in handling and storing hazardous chemicals, both for the sake of the workers at the plants and for the surrounding communities. Fifteen people died and more than 200 were injured by the blast. Many homes and buildings were damaged, including a public middle school next to the plant that, fortunately, was not in session. A report issued by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board this spring, barely a year after the incident, concluded that it “should never have occurred.”
In the summer of 2013, Winje contributed to the development, review and editing of the federal Executive Order issued in response to the tragedy as an intern with the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security,” signed into law by President Obama August 1, 2013, resulted from a collaboration among a number of federal entities. “The idea was to bring together all of the players responsible for preventing chemical accidents at these facilities and work toward a new process that is more effective and protective,” Winje explains.
As the only intern with a public health background, Winje made sure to emphasize prevention strategies - in the form of not just effective regulations and inspections, but incentivizing investments in safer products and processes. “Instead of just managing risks in this industry, it’s important to look at how to eliminate these risks in an economically feasible way, without placing a huge burden on the regulatory body,” Winje says. “We need to move from risk management to risk prevention.”
The experience taught Winje the importance of taking into account the perspectives of all key players - the regulators and the regulated, as well as the workers and the community - in formulating policy. “Even if we are thinking above all about public health, we have to understand the economic and political considerations, and be able to effectively dialogue with people who have those interests,” she says.
After her time in the nation’s capital, Winje is eyeing a career in environmental policy. “Washington, D.C., was an intoxicating experience,” she says. “It was exhilarating to see the White House from my office and have meetings in the White House compound. Policy is what shapes our communities and our day-to-day lives, and it’s exciting to know I can make a major impact by bringing my public health perspective to that process.”