EPA Proposes New Rule to Address Chemical Disasters

Communities facing constant threat of fires and explosions need stronger protection


Erin Fitzgerald, efitzgerald@earthjustice.org

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new rules for chemical facilities under the Risk Management Program (RMP) which directs EPA to prevent explosions, fires, and other dangerous industrial disasters that put thousands of communities at risk. Among various things, the proposed revisions to the rule address climate hazards like hurricanes and unprecedented flooding, require evaluation of common-sense measures like back-up power to avoid releases during power loss, require evaluation of safer technologies at some of the most hazardous facilities, expand worker involvement in safety planning and disaster prevention, and provide community notification of toxic releases and access to certain hazard information for the most-affected community members.

Chemical disasters are a serious problem in the United States. 177 million people in the United States live in the worst-case scenario zone for a chemical catastrophe. Over 140 hazardous fires, explosions, or other harmful chemical incidents occur at industrial facilities every year, according to EPA data from 2006 to 2015, the most recent decade for which complete data is available. The reported incidents are just the tip of the iceberg, as disasters are chronically underreported. In fact, chemical facilities sometimes wait for as many as five years to report incidents to EPA.

“We welcome EPA’s efforts to save lives, prevent injuries and toxic exposure by proposing necessary, new safeguards,” said Earthjustice attorney Emma Cheuse. “But to prioritize the safety of workers and fenceline communities, EPA must strengthen this rule beyond what it has proposed and issue the strongest protections possible from industrial chemical disasters.”

EPA should do all it can to ensure no preventable incidents occur involving highly hazardous chemicals, and that requires expanding coverage to protect people at more hazardous facilities, not just those who work and live near plants that have had a recent incident. EPA must expand and strengthen the proposed rule after hearing public comments, by listening to communities’ calls for fenceline monitoring and robust disaster prevention requirements that workers, communities, and first responders can count on to protect their health and safety on a daily basis.

Quotes from Earthjustice clients:

“It is good to see EPA moving in the right direction, but EPA must do everything it can to make this rule stronger to protect vulnerable populations including communities like Port Arthur, Texas from explosions and chemical releases. We will be calling for EPA to make sure the final rule includes crucial missing safety measures, like fenceline monitoring and expanded prevention requirements, and ensures stronger direct public access to information before an incident happens,” said Hilton Kelley, executive director, Community In-Power & Development Association.

“With cumulative impacts from dozens of chemical plants along the Houston Ship Channel alone, having access to the RMP chemical facility information is necessary and key for the protection and survival of fenceline communities — so EPA must finalize strong community information provisions,” said Juan Parras, executive director, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services.

“It is positive that EPA will require an assessment of natural hazards like hurricanes, earthquakes, and flood zones at industrial facilities to prevent chemical disasters. However, if we are to prevent chemical accidents, much more will need to be done. We need EPA to require implementation of many of these new requirements they proposed, including safer technologies, backup power, enhanced coverage of more chemicals and more facilities, and greater direct, public access to information. The public will need to engage loudly and often as this rule moves forward, and EPA will need to listen to calls for stronger implementation requirements in this rulemaking process, to ensure that the final regulation will truly provide the safeguards needed in our most impacted communities,” said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics.

“Home to over 600 chemical manufacturing facilities, many near residential homes, Houston is Ground Zero for the next chemical disaster. Houstonians will never forget the ITC chemical fire that burned for 5 days in 2019 or the flooded chemical tanks from Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall 5 years ago next week. Houstonians deserve a truly protective risk management rule, one that will hold these facilities accountable to the health and safety of their workers and the community. We commend the EPA for taking this important step forward with today’s announcement, and we look forward to working with them to make it even stronger,” said Jennifer Hadayia, executive director, Air Alliance Houston.

“Chlorine gas transfer stations embedded in environmental justice communities must be mitigated. We are just one chemical disaster away from certain death,” said Cynthia Babich, director Del Amo Action Committee.

“Louisiana is home to hundreds of industrial facilities which are subject to the chemical disaster rule. Our communities routinely face explosions, chemical accidents, and the release of dangerous chemicals during hurricanes. Earlier this month, a major chlorine release had residents of the city Plaquemine sheltering in place when they should have been evacuated. These chemical releases are often not reported, and in many cases, residents are not given evacuation orders when they should. We are hopeful that the Biden-Harris administration can strengthen the requirements so that these chemical accidents are prevented. They have taken a good first step by proposing that facilities assess the dangers of hurricanes and plan to prevent chemical disasters during these frequently occurring events in Louisiana,” said Darryl Malek-Wiley, senior organizing representative of the Sierra Club.

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