Communities, Workers, and Scientists Seek Emergency Relief from Chemical Disasters
Today, a coalition of groups representing workers, scientists and community members near chemical facilities filed a motion seeking emergency relief from the D.C. Circuit Court to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from delaying needed updates to the agency’s Risk Management Program, also known as the Chemical Disaster Rule.
Last week, bowing to pressure from the oil and chemical industries, and states aligned with those industries, EPA published a final rule putting these commonsense protections against chemical disasters on hold for an unprecedented period of time—until February 2019.
“EPA’s sudden delay irresponsibly endangers workers, first responders, and communities living near chemical facilities. It also represents a shocking disregard for the rule of law and the process the government is required to follow before it takes away any health and safety protections under the Clean Air Act,” said Gordon Sommers, an attorney with Earthjustice, representing fence-line community groups.
“This is a startling nullification of vital protections that puts the lives of emergency responders, workers and community members in jeopardy,” said Pam Nixon, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
When developing the Chemical Disaster Rule, EPA determined that its prior regulations failed to prevent over 2,000 chemical accidents around the country over a 10-year period.
EPA’s own data shows there will in all likelihood be at least 300 more accidents involving dangerous chemicals during this nearly two year delay.
“The Chemical Disaster Rule is designed to prevent chemical accidents—and to ensure community members have adequate emergency response in place to reduce harm if they do happen,” said Dr. Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston. “Preparation for an emergency in these situations, particularly in overburdened communities like ours along the Houston Ship Channel, can be the difference between life and death.”
“In issuing this delay, EPA ignores determinations it made after years of work and says it will suddenly reconsider the protections based on industry requests. That’s not just bad policy—it’s also illegal. That’s why groups from around the country are now suing to stop this delay,” said Gordon Sommers.
From 2004 to 2013 alone, more than 2,200 chemical accidents were reported at hazardous facilities, over 1,500 of which caused reported harm. These accidents killed 59 people; caused more than more than 17,000 to be injured, hospitalized, or to seek medical care, and nearly half a million to evacuate or shelter in place to try to avoid chemical exposure and other harm; and caused more than $2 billion in property damage. No month passed during the studied decade without at least 8 accidents at or near a chemical facility in the United States. And communities continue to live under the constant threat of a chemical catastrophe.
The new rules would protect both workers and fence-line communities by strengthening emergency preparedness and coordination with local first responders and forcing chemical facilities with the worst accident records, such as petroleum refineries, to consider implementing available safety precautions to save lives and prevent harm.
"Commonsense safeguards to protect frontline communities, including our children, from the dangers of chemical explosions. Who could possibly be against that?” says Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities against Toxics. “We can’t let Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA, get away with this."
"Texas has a long dark history of disasters at industrial facilities resulting in the tragic loss of life and devastating injuries to plant workers. Texas communities are also at risk from chemical disasters that can send toxic clouds into the air that residents have to breathe and are too often asked to shelter-in-place inside their homes. Dozens of communities in Texas need this EPA rule to be adopted quickly, “said Neil Carman, Clean Air Program Director for the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter.
“There are refineries and other chemical facilities that are located near highly-populated areas in Utah. EPA Administrator Pruitt cannot just do whatever he wants, and ignore the clear threat to health and safety that chemical facilities pose in favor of undoing essential protections to boost the profits of wealthy corporations. Our lives depend on these regulations,” said Denni Cawley, executive director for Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
About 177 million Americans live in the worst-case scenario zones for a chemical disaster. At least one in three schoolchildren in America attends a school within the vulnerability zone of a hazardous facility. Black, Latino and low-income communities are disproportionately at-risk.
Earthjustice represents Air Alliance Houston, California Communities Against Toxics, Clean Air Council, Coalition For A Safe Environment, Community In-Power & Development Association, Del Amo Action Committee, Environmental Integrity Project, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Sierra Club, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. United Steelworkers is represented by Santarella & Eckert, LLC.
- 6/22 USW and Community groups’ motion to stay the delay rule.
- 6/15 USW motion to intervene in support of fence-line community groups’ challenge to the delay rule.
- 5/19 Comments on the delay when it was proposed.
- 4/19 Community groups’ motion to intervene to defend the chemical disaster rule from industry attacks.
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.