EPA Should Include Climate Risks in Chemical Facility Safety Rules

New federal watchdog report underscores communities need safeguards from chemical disasters caused by extreme weather


Erin Fitzgerald, Earthjustice Press Secretary

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published yesterday finds that commercial and industrial facilities are currently exposed to present-day risks of natural hazards and that one-third of facilities are located in areas that will be even more vulnerable to risks posed by climate change. The report calls on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ensure that these types of facilities mitigate risks from climate change, and better protect nearby communities from chemical disasters during extreme weather events. These recommendations echo what community and public health advocates have been requesting for years.

The report comes the same week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of worsening risks from climate change ,including more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns, rising sea levels, and extreme temperatures. Factors like these increase the likelihood of accidental releases that would expose communities near industrial facilities to toxic chemicals.

Federal chemical disaster rules are lax and need to be strengthened to keep communities and workers safe. Hundreds of chemical disasters happen every year in the United States, clearly illustrating serious gaps in the EPA’s Clean Air Act Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule. The RMP rule regulates more than 12,000 industrial facilities in the United States, including chemical manufacturers, oil refineries, water treatment plants, and more. Roughly 177 million Americans live in a worst-case scenario zone for a chemical catastrophe, and these dangers disproportionately threaten communities of color and low-income communities.

“The RMP needs urgent rule changes that will prevent chemical disasters from happening in the first place, offset growing risk posed by climate change and mitigate the cumulative health impacts from hazardous chemicals that workers and fenceline communities experience daily,” said the undersigned members of the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters. “Workers and fenceline communities face a severe and ongoing threat to their lives, health, and well-being due to major gaps in EPA’s rules on hazardous chemical storage, use and industrial facility safety guidelines.”

The GAO report confirms what community members have known far too long:

  • Although regulated facilities aren’t required to consider climate change as part of their risk management plans, at least 5% of the reported incidents from the last five years were caused by a natural disaster — likely more due to inadequate tracking, reporting, and public information.
  • Climate change is likely to worsen natural hazards, like flooding, storm surges, and wildfires, which could increase the likelihood of accidental releases of hazardous chemicals at regulated facilities.
  • Lastly, the report concludes and recommends that EPA should strengthen federal regulations and provide guidance to ensure regulated facilities consider and incorporate risks from climate change into their risk management planning.

EPA has a critical opportunity to incorporate GAO’s recommendations into its current review of the RMP rule. In January 2022, over 70 state and local elected officials sent a letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan calling for stronger RMP and chemical disaster prevention rules that account for climate risks and advance environmental justice. The agency plans to issue a proposed RMP rule for public comment by September 2022 and a final rule by August 2023.

A recent policy brief from Center for Progressive Reform, Earthjustice, and Union of Concerned Scientists found that EPA must eliminate hazards in order to prevent double disasters (from “natech” or combined natural and industrial chemical incidents), require monitoring and collection of toxic air emissions data in real time, require back-up power and other safer operation and mitigation measures, boost involvement of workers and their representatives in preparedness and response practices and strengthen community access to advance notification, and expand RMP coverage to more chemicals and more facilities in areas prone to natural disasters. UCS’s 2020 report “A Toxic Relationship” found that nearly 2,000 hazardous chemical sites are vulnerable to climate risk in the coming decades.

The Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters is a network of fenceline community, worker, public health and safety, and environmental organizations that support common-sense Risk Management Program reforms and other actions to prevent chemical catastrophes.

The Coalition members joining and approving this release include: Earthjustice, Air Alliance Houston, Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists, Center for Progressive Reform, Coming Clean, Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter, Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, and Public Citizen.

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