Contents Under Pressure: Speak Out Against EPA Proposed Chemical Facility Safety Rollbacks That Put Communities at Risk

June 13, 2018 | 2:33 pm
The Chevron Richmond refinery fire in August 2012.
Charise Johnson
Former Contributor

Over the last year, we have written extensively on the actions that Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken to eliminate or weaken critical science-based protections, particularly on chemical facility safety. From the outset, Pruitt was determined to delay the implementation of updates to the Risk Management Plan(RMP) that called for the assessment of safer technologies, more accessible and quality information for communities near facilities, and improved emergency response coordination. Now with a new proposed rule, the saga continues as the EPA under Pruitt moves one step closer to eliminating hard-fought improvements to the RMP.

Tomorrow, the EPA will hold a public hearing in Washington, D.C. for comments on the proposed changes to the RMP amendments. This is the only hearing being held on the proposed rule, which means that, just like last year, the frontline communities affected by these decisions will likely not have an opportunity to speak out against it. I will be testifying on behalf of UCS, in hopes of amplifying the concerns of the communities that are unable to be present. You can see my prepared comments below.

The agency is currently taking written comments on the proposed rule, open until June 29, 2018. UCS has created an RMP public comment guide for tips on writing a strong comment for this particular rule, which can be found here. Please join us in telling Administrator Pruitt that the health and safety of frontline communities, workers, and first responders will not be best served by favoring industry.


Thank you for this opportunity to speak on the proposed amendments to the Risk Management Plan.

My name is Charise Johnson. I am here on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists. With more than 500,000 members and supporters across the country, we are a nonpartisan, non-profit group, dedicated to improving public policy through rigorous and independent science. This proposed rule rolls back many of the critical public safeguards implemented in the 2017 Chemical Disaster Rule. Just last year, I was in this building along with many other partners and fence-line community groups asking EPA to end its dangerous delay of the 2017 Chemical Disaster Rule. Those updates to the original RMP were hard fought and deliberated by various stakeholders including multiple agencies and took several years to finalize. Now I am here today to ask the EPA to rescind these dangerous rollbacks.

This rule is particularly important to the health and safety of fence-line communities, first responders, and workers in the facilities. The Husky Energy Oil Refinery explosion in Wisconsin, the Valero Refinery explosion and fire in Texas, and the Chevron Richmond Refinery flaring of at least 500 pounds of sulfur dioxide in California are a few examples just in the past two months of how chemical facilities need to better coordinate with first responders, offer more direct access to information to communities to plan for evacuation, and assessment of safer practices that could make workers and surrounding communities safer in case of an accident. And with the strengthening of severe weather events such as intense hurricane seasons in the Gulf region, the frequency of chemical disasters like the Arkema explosion will become more commonplace for neighboring communities. 

The modest, commonsense requirements that the EPA is aiming to rollback include:

  • A requirement that industrial facilities presenting the highest risks undertake a safer technology alternatives assessment (STAA). Safer technology alternatives assessment is a business best practice, industry should be looking at ways to make their practices and technology safer for their facility, workers, and for the surrounding communities.
  • A requirement that an “incident analysis” include determining the “root cause” of the incident to avoid such incidents in the future. Root cause analyses are necessary to determine what the cause of an incident or a near miss is, so the facility can fix the problem and prevent a future disaster.
  • A requirement that qualified, independent third-party audits be conducted when a facility has an incident to ensure the cause of the incident is addressed. In the case of the highest risk facilities and extreme incidents a third-party audit of the facility should be necessary to gain an objective view and assessment of the safety of the facility.
  • A requirement that facilities provide the public with information critical to the surrounding communities’ understanding of the potential risks from these facilities, including how to protect themselves should a release occur and what potential health risks they might face from a recent release incident. Information sharing should be a basic tenet of this rule. The EPA requires individuals travel to their respective state’s federal reading room to acquire information on facilities, yet not every state has a reading room, and some must travel great distances. Communities and first responders deserve to have better access to basic information about facilities in their community such as 5-year accident history, safety data sheets, planned emergency exercises, and evacuation information. These provide basic access to information that the public has a right to know and hampers the ability of affected communities to know and prepare for chemical risks.
  • A requirement that facilities provide emergency planners and first responders with additional information needed for responding to a chemical release. The proposal would return to the status quo, where companies have more leeway to refuse to share relevant safety information with first responders.

EPA’s own rulemaking states that the proposed changes to this rule would impact low-income communities and communities of color the hardest. We are here in solidarity with our environmental justice community partners, including the Environmental Justice Health Alliance (EJHA) and Texas Environmental Advocacy Services (TEJAS), among countless others who among the few community voices able to make it all the way to DC to make sure the EPA considers vulnerable communities over industry profits.

Since the delay of the 2017 Chemical Disaster Rule, there have been at least 45 known incidents at chemical facilities. That is at least 45 incidents too many. The 2017 finalized amendments are commonsense protections that could have helped prevent and mitigate the harm of those chemical disasters and protect us from future ones. EPA needs to put the health and safety of the public first, and not move forward with this proposed rule.