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Workers, first-responders, and fenceline communities need stronger protections from chemical disasters

Environmental Protection Agency

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What’s At Stake

It’s past time to address “double disasters” — hazardous chemical releases by industrial facilities that can be worsened by inadequate action in the face of climate change and natural disasters. Tell the Environmental Protection Agency to prevent chemical disasters today by finalizing critical new safeguards and reforming the Risk Management Program.

The EPA administers the Risk Management Program (RMP), which regulates industrial facilities that use, store, and/or manage highly hazardous chemicals. This program has a notorious history of failing to prevent serious chemical disasters — over 2,430 harmful incidents have occurred under the existing rules in the United States since 2004.

Recently, the EPA proposed a new rule which would reform the RMP. The RMP regulates about 11,760 chemical facilities, including chemical manufacturers, oil refineries, water treatment plants, industrial agriculture facilities, and pulp and paper mills. At least a third of these facilities are at high risk of exposure to wildfires, storm surges, flooding, and sea level rise — the severity of which is worsening dramatically as the climate changes. Yet, EPA’s current regulatory program neither directly addresses climate change nor requires these facilities to take any specific actions to protect people from the cascading effects of natural disaster-related chemical releases. If this new proposal becomes a regulation, it will require companies to assess climate risks and report on their plans for responding to a worst-case double disaster incident for the first time.

Chemical disasters are a serious problem in the United States. 177 million people in the United States live in worst-case scenario zones for chemical catastrophes. About 156 hazardous fires, explosions, or other harmful chemical incidents occur at industrial facilities every year on average, according to EPA data from 2007 to 2016. The reported incidents are just the tip of the iceberg, as reports of near misses and even some disasters are delayed or even go unreported.

Workers and members of the public have been calling for meaningful reform for years. Fenceline communities — people who live near major industrial sites — have demanded government action to end the “second storm” of pollution. (Parras 2)

After Earthjustice won a case against the Trump-Pence administration for unlawfully delaying implementation of the 2017 Chemical Disaster Rule, the prior EPA responded by issuing a rollback of these important protections. Fortunately, the Biden-Harris administration has recognized the need to review and improve this program. New rules must do more than just restore the regulations from 2017 — it is essential to strengthen them. Take action today to show your support for the EPA’s proposal to reform the Risk Management Program to address chemical disasters and call for improvements to the proposal to ensure the strongest possible protections for workers, first-responders, and fenceline communities.

A chemical fire burns at a facility during the aftermath of Hurricane Laura Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, near Lake Charles, LA.
David J. Phillip

A chemical fire burns at a facility during the aftermath of Hurricane Laura Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, near Lake Charles, LA.

Your Actions Matter

Your messages make a difference, even if we have leaders who don't want to listen. Here's why.

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You level the playing field.

Elected officials pay attention when they see that we are paying attention.

They may be hearing from industry lobbyists left and right, but hearing the stories of their constituents — that’s your power.

Our legislators serve at the pleasure of the people who gave them their job — you. When you contact your elected official, you’re putting a face and a name on an issue. Whether or not you voted for them, they work for you, for the duration of their term.

Make sure your elected officials know whose community and whose values they represent. (Find your local, state, and federal elected officials.)

Your action is with us in court.

If a federal agency finalizes a harmful action, the record of public comments provides a basis for bringing them into court.

Throughout each of the public comment periods we alert you to, Earthjustice’s attorneys are researching and writing in-depth, technical comments to submit — detailing how the regulation could and should be stronger to protect the environment, our communities, and our planet.

We need you to join us — your specific experiences, knowledge, and voice are crucial to add to the Administrative Record through the comment periods.

Lawsuits we file that challenge weak or harmful federal regulations rely on what was submitted during the comment period. The court can only look at documents that are in the Administrative Record — including the public comments — to decide if the agency did something improper.

Your actions aid our litigation. Taking action and submitting comments during a comment period is substantively important.

It’s the law.

Federal agencies must pause what they’re doing and ask for — and consider — your comment.

Many of us may have never heard of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), but laws like these require our government to ask the public to weigh in before agencies adopt or change regulations.

Regulations essentially describe how federal agencies will carry out laws — including decisions that could undermine science, or weaken safeguards on public health.

Public comments are collected at various points throughout the federal government’s rulemaking process, including when a regulation is proposed and finalized. (Learn more about the rulemaking process.) These comments become part of the official, legal public record — the “Administrative Record.”

When the public responds with a huge outpouring of support for environmental protections, these individual messages collectively undercut politicians' attempts to claim otherwise.

What this means is each of us can take a role in shaping the rules our government creates — and ensuring those rules are fair and effective.