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Sept. 13, 2017 | Updated May 31, 2018

What The Toxic Catastrophes In Texas Reveal About The National Chemical Disaster Rule

There’s no time to waste. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says health and safety protections can wait.

Sept. 13, 2017 | Updated May 31, 2018

What The Toxic Catastrophes In Texas Reveal About The National Chemical Disaster Rule

There’s no time to waste. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says health and safety protections can wait.

The flooded Motiva oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. Sept. 1, 2017.
Alex Glostrum / Louisiana Bucket Brigade
The flooded Motiva oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. Sept. 1, 2017.
Above: The flooded Motiva oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. Sept. 1, 2017. Alex Glostrum / Louisiana Bucket Brigade

Many communities in Texas and Louisiana battling hurricanes and floods now face the additional threats of hazardous chemical releases, because the Trump administration is delaying chemical disaster prevention measures.

For in-depth information on the Chemical Disaster Rule, read "A Disaster In The Making," a one-year review report released in April 2018 that documents how delay of the Rule is harming communities and families.

1. What happened at the Arkema facility in Texas?
Highly volatile chemicals—organic peroxides—exploded and burned over several days in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Organic peroxides must be kept very cold to remain stable. Primary power to cooling units at the Arkema plant failed during the hurricane. Insufficient backup power also failed, and after the plant flooded under six feet of water, a disaster began to unfold.

On Aug. 31, 2017, authorities evacuated workers and ordered residents within 1.5 miles of the facility to flee, because the chemicals would burn as the temperature rose.

The storage of these chemicals, without necessary disaster prevention or emergency response measures in place, and the resulting explosions endangered not only the nearby community, but also reportedly injured seven first responders, who say they were not informed of the toxic threats as they arrived to help.

Smoke at Arkema Plant

A new fire has broken out at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas. PREVIOUS STORY:

Posted by WFAA-TV on Friday, September 1, 2017

Located in Crosby, Texas, about 20 miles northeast of Houston, the Arkema facility produces chemicals used in agricultural and manufacturing products. In addition to organic peroxides, it stores a number of toxic substances, including sulfur dioxide and isobutylene, which are regulated under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Risk Management Program. The program is designed to protect public health from accidental toxic releases.

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2. Is the disaster at Arkema an isolated incident in the region?
No. It’s just the one that has received the most media attention.

As oil refineries, chemical plants, and other facilities shut down and then start up operations in areas affected by Hurricane Harvey, there are extreme health and safety concerns for workers and nearby communities, who are breathing toxic chemical releases that can, and should, be prevented.

Spikes of toxic chemicals, such as the carcinogen benzene and 1,3-butadiene have been reported in hurricane-affected communities, including Houston and Corpus Christi. The incidents are examples of the preventable problems that communities near oil refineries and other chemical facilities face all too often on a daily basis.

These impacts come on top of the flooding, life disruption, and loss that so many people are facing as a result of the hurricane.


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3. Are there protections to prevent or mitigate chemical disasters like Arkema and other toxic releases happening in the region?
Yes. But implementation has been illegally delayed by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Much-needed improvements to the EPA's Risk Management Program—the updates are known as the ‘Chemical Disaster Rule’—require about 12,500 chemical facilities across the country that use or store highly toxic or flammable chemicals to prevent and to take steps to reduce harm, by strengthening preparation by the facility, first responders, and affected communities in the event of accidents and emergencies.

The types of facilities covered by the protections include oil refineries, chemical manufacturers, pulp-paper mills, and more.

The chemicals released by oil refineries have serious health impacts.
Graphic by Earthjustice
The chemicals released by oil refineries have serious health impacts.

Under the Chemical Disaster Rule, facilities must analyze possible safety risks, consider whether stronger safeguards can be implemented, and improve emergency response preparedness, such as requirements to share information and coordinate with first responders. These updates, the first in 20 years and finalized in January 2017, resulted from years of work by local and national community and safety advocates, environmental and health groups, industrial workers, first responders, and former generals.

The protections were already scheduled to take effect, to ensure facilities would have sufficient time to comply. But on June 9, EPA Administrator Pruitt ordered an illegal 20-month delay of the Chemical Disaster Rule—nullifying the new protections for two hurricane seasons—simply because he says he wants to “reconsider” the rule and might possibly weaken its protections.

This delay, like many other health and environmental rollbacks under the Trump administration, places communities, workers and first responders at risk and ignores years of careful consideration and significant public input.

On May 17, 2018, the EPA revealed a plan to try to delete all accident prevention program provisions of the Chemical Disaster Rule that President Obama’s EPA issued to save lives. The original rule is based on robust evidence of harm to workers, first-responders, and fenceline communities.

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4. Is the Arkema plant covered under Chemical Disaster Rule protections?
Yes. (But the EPA has delayed the protections.)

Under the Chemical Disaster Rule, the Arkema plant (along with other chemical manufacturers) would be required to better prevent on-site hazards and coordinate potential disaster planning with first responders, such as holding an emergency exercise.

The plant would also have to make it easier for the local community members who are most vulnerable to a disaster—including those directed by Arkema to evacuate on Aug. 31, 2017, while they were in the midst of hurricane aftermath and recovery—to protect their right to know about the dangerous chemicals being stored on-site and about basic emergency response measures.

Most importantly, the plant would need to assess and consider implementing safety improvements—which may include storing fewer or less hazardous chemicals, using safer tanks or other equipment, and improving the backup power system and other safety measures. These measures would have reduced the vulnerability of the facility—located in a hurricane-prone area—to flooding if it intends to continue using and storing chemicals known to combust when the temperature rises too high.

These protective measures have all been delayed by EPA Administrator Pruitt until February 2019.

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5. When would the Chemical Disaster Rule require increased safety?
The longer the EPA delays protections, the longer safety assessments and investments will be delayed.

Preparation was supposed to begin before now, with the Chemical Disaster Rule giving facilities several years to come into full compliance. Without the 20-month delay ordered by EPA Administrator Pruitt, companies would need to have already begun making initial safety assessments and emergency response preparation.

Industry has repeatedly stated its desire for a delay, in order to avoid taking safety steps to meet phased compliance deadlines, the most immediate of which is for emergency response coordination with first responders in March 2018.

Although these requirements could not be more common-sense to protect communities—by ensuring firefighters, police, and public health workers have the information they need to plan for protections in a chemical accident—Trump’s EPA has delayed all requirements of the protections for nearly a year after that date. That means that no facilities will be required to coordinate with first responders before the next hurricane season arrives in the Gulf, a region full of oil refineries and chemical plants.

Hurricane season in the Atlantic officially begins on Friday, June 1, 2018.

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6. What have we learned from the incidents in Texas?
Action must be taken now to improve safety.

Many refineries and chemical plants have had issues with backup power failing, leading to significant pollution releases. Yet companies are still failing to provide adequate backup power or take other steps necessary to prevent and reduce harm to communities.

The best way to prevent and prepare for emergencies is to evaluate safer alternatives, reduce the amount of hazards on-site, ensure adequate backup systems are in place, and work with communities and first responders by providing the information they need to protect themselves.

The flooded Valero oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, on Sept. 1, 2017.
Alex Glostrum / Louisiana Bucket Brigade
The flooded Valero oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, on Sept. 1, 2017. Heavy rain during the hurricane damaged a roof covering a crude-oil tank at the refinery on Aug. 27, causing benzene to leak into the air. Benzene can cause leukemia and bone marrow failure.

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7. When a hurricane happens, can anything can be done to avoid disasters at chemical facilities?
Yes. There is overwhelming evidence that safety improvements are feasible, effective and save lives.

Hurricanes are a regular, known threat. Inherently safer technologies and use of alternatives that require fewer hazardous chemicals would dramatically reduce the risk of incidents like what occurred at Arkema and other facilities following Hurricane Harvey.

The oil and chemical industry should be taking these commonsense measures both to protect the health and safety of nearby communities and to protect their own workers. Instead, they are fighting protections intended to save lives and prevent injury.

Companies like Arkema opposed disclosure of needed information to the community concerning what’s stored at their plants and what safety measures are in place. Arkema even lobbied to stop these very protections from taking place.

Transparency with first responders, like that mandated under the Chemical Disaster Rule, is essential for saving lives and holding companies accountable to a basic standard of safety that EPA should be ensuring for all communities exposed to hazardous chemical facilities.

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8. Are protections needed, even in the absence of natural disasters?
Yes. Accidents at industrial chemical plants are not rare.

From 2004–2013, accidents involving chemical industrial processes occurred, on average, every other day.

When developing the Chemical Disaster Rule protections, the EPA determined that its prior standards failed to prevent more than 2,200 chemical accidents over a 10-year period. Within the decade studied, not a single month passed without at least eight, and sometimes dozens of, accidents.

In this calendar sequence, each    is one day. Colors indicate how many chemical accidents occured that day, from one accident up to five accidents.
Calendar heatmap of chemical accidents from 2004-2013.

These accidents occurred in communities throughout the country, with oil refineries, chemical plants and pulp-paper mills having the most serious accident records reported.

The 2,291 chemical accidents between 2004 and 2013 happened throughout the country. Larger map.

During this decade, someone—usually a worker, first responder, or local community resident—was injured by a chemical disaster every four days on average. These accidents resulted in injuries or medical treatment for more than 17,000 people—and took the lives of 59 people. Nearly half a million people trying to go about their daily lives were forced to evacuate or shelter in place to try to avoid chemical exposure and other harm.

Because chemical facilities often release carcinogens and neurotoxicants such as benzene and other chemicals that have no safe level of human exposure, even accidental releases that do not cause immediately reported death or injury can create irreparable harm through hazardous chemical exposure, particularly for children.

The EPA’s own data shows there will in all likelihood be at least 300 more accidents involving dangerous chemicals during the two years they seek to delay the Chemical Disaster Rule.

The incident at the Arkema plant, and the additional toxic releases that have been reported in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, are now among these unfortunate, preventable accidents.

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9. Who is affected by these types of disasters?
At least one in three schoolchildren in America attends a school within the vulnerability zone of a hazardous facility.

About 177 million people live in the worst-case scenario zones for a chemical disaster.

“Who's in Danger? A Demographic Analysis of Chemical Disaster Vulnerability Zones,” an in-depth report by the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, details the areas and people at risk. Communities living near the fencelines of oil refineries and chemical plants are often predominantly lower income or communities of color. Residents exposed to the toxic releases, and other safety threats from these accidents are also more likely to suffer cancer and respiratory illnesses.

The report also documented that African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately at risk of exposure to toxins from leaks, flaring and everyday pollution, and the dangers from explosions and other accidents.

Chrisangel Nieto in Hartman Park, on Nov. 21, 2013, in the Manchester neighborhood of Houston.
Eric Kayne for Earthjustice
Chrisangel Nieto in Hartman Park, on Nov. 21, 2013, in the Manchester neighborhood of Houston, where Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) works to protect community members. Nieto and his family live on the perimeter of the park. In the background is the Valero oil refinery.

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10. What’s happening now with the Chemical Disaster Rule protections?
We’re suing the EPA over the illegal delay.

Earthjustice is in court, on behalf of a coalition of workers, scientists and community members near oil refineries and chemical facilities, to challenge the illegal delay of the Chemical Disaster Rule protections.

We are representing the Union of Concerned Scientists, Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, Coalition For A Safe Environment (Wilmington, CA), Del Amo Action Committee (Torrance, CA), California Communities Against Toxics, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Air Alliance Houston, Community In-Power & Development Association (Port Arthur, TX), Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, Clean Air Council (Philadelphia, PA), Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (West Virginia).

The United Steelworkers Union has joined as a petitioner-intervenor, represented by Santarella & Eckert, LLC. The attorneys general of 11 states—New York, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington—have also filed suit against the EPA's delay.

On Aug. 30, 2017, the D.C. Circuit Court granted Earthjustice’s request to expedite the case and denied the EPA’s motion for an extended briefing schedule. On Oct. 25, 2017, Earthjustice filed its principal brief before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, asking the Court to end EPA’s illegal delay of these life-saving protections. The Court heard oral argument on Mar. 16, 2018. See legal filings and additional information on the litigation.

On May 17, 2018, the EPA issued a plan to gut the Chemical Disaster Rule by deleting all accident prevention program provisions at the request of the oil and chemical industry.

Without adequate protections, preventable accidents will continue to occur. That is why we will keep working to protect communities living under the constant threat of a chemical catastrophe.

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11. Is there anything I can do?
Yes. Please support our partners who were impacted by the natural disasters in 2017.

And, please signup for Earthjustice's emails to be kept informed of ways you can get involved.