Last year, hundreds of community members, regulatory agencies, and advocates (including UCS) weighed in on the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed standards to strengthen the Risk Management Program (RMP). The RMP requires nearly 12,000 highly hazardous chemical facilities to develop risk management plans to prepare for and prevent catastrophic disasters. In recent years, the RMP has been subject to a political tug-of-war: partially strengthened under the Obama administration and then promptly rolled back under the Trump administration. However, the proposals to date have all lacked strong measures to prevent chemical disasters and the latest iteration of the rule, proposed under the Biden administration last year, is no different.
Weak on disaster prevention
While the current proposal restores some of the provisions rolled back during the Trump administration, it still fails to implement many of the measures that have long been requested by communities near RMP facilities: requirements for these facilities to transition to safer processes and less dangerous chemicals; to assess accelerating climate hazards and implement measures to mitigate these hazards; to provide workers at all RMP facilities the authority to stop work in situations that could cause injury; and to install air monitors to measure emissions in communities located at the fenceline (within a few miles) of an RMP facility, among other things.
As this process has drawn on over several years, there have been hundreds of chemical disasters that could have been prevented if these measures were in place. According to an analysis by the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, of which UCS is a member, there have been nearly 500 chemical incidents and counting since April 2020.
One such incident was a fire and release of toxic gas at the BioLab chemical facility in Westlake, Louisiana. On August 27, 2020, strong winds from Hurricane Laura, a category 4 hurricane, damaged buildings at the facility which stored trichloroisocyanuric acid (TCCA), a chlorinating agent used to kill bacteria in bodies of water, such as swimming pools. The TCCA reacted with rainwater from the storm to produce heat that incited a fire that burned for three days, producing toxic chlorine gas. Exposure to chlorine gas can damage tissues, causing respiratory issues such as coughing and difficulty breathing, blurred vision, burning sensations, and nausea. While there were no reported injuries, more than 10,000 people live within one mile of the facility, some of whom reported ill health effects.
Chemical Safety Board calls for strengthened rule
Last month, the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) released a report of its investigation of this incident. The CSB is an independent federal agency responsible for investigating chemical releases and issuing safety recommendations to prevent harm from future incidents.
The report chastises BioLab for failing to “implement industry guidance for extreme weather preparation,” particularly after the catastrophic explosion at the Arkema chemical plant near Houston, Texas after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The BioLab report also rebukes the company for a delayed emergency response, an outdated and “largely nonfunctional fire protection system,” and for failing to train its staff on how to operate the backup generator, all of which exacerbated the release of chlorine gas.
The report also highlights a fundamental regulatory gap: TCCA is not a regulated substance under the RMP—one of many reactive chemicals that are not currently covered under the rule despite continuing to be involved in chemical disasters (see deadly ammonium nitrate as another example). Since TCCA is not covered under the rule, BioLab was not required to implement process safety management systems for its TCCA-related operations.
Despite a CSB report published more than two decades ago urging EPA to regulate reactive chemicals under the RMP, EPA has failed to add reactive chemicals to the list of regulated substances. CSB has since completed six other investigations of incidents involving reactive chemicals between 2002 and 2020.
This was also not the only incident at a facility owned by BioLab in 2020. On September 14, of that year—less than three weeks after the incident in Westlake, a similar release of chlorine gas occurred at the company’s facility in Conyers, Georgia. Plus, the fire at the Westlake facility was one of at least four separate chemical incidents in the area that year.
Proposed rule’s gaps should be filled
The unfortunate truth is that existing regulatory gaps, as well as BioLab’s errors and oversights, mean that the RMP rule proposed under the Biden administration would likely not have prevented the 2020 BioLab Westlake disaster.
The current proposal requires facilities to assess risks from natural hazards such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, but does not require facilities to implement measures to prevent these risks. Simply identifying hazards will not ensure that disasters are prevented. For example, emergency plans submitted by the Arkema plant in 2014—three years before Hurricane Harvey—identified hurricanes and power loss as major hazards, but these plans failed to identify what the facility should do to prevent these hazards. Furthermore, BioLab failed to implement its own 2010 guidance recommending that the facility “consider evaluating warehouse roof structure for hurricane conditions; verify warehouse is built to withstand high winds.” Voluntary guidance alone will not prevent climate-driven disasters.
Furthermore, the proposal does not require all facilities regulated under the RMP to conduct safer technology and alternatives analyses. EPA arbitrarily proposed to limit this requirement to roughly five percent of RMP facilities. Yet, requiring all high-risk facilities to assess and implement safer technologies and processes might have prompted BioLab to inspect and update its nonfunctional fire protection systems, or to install automated sprinkler systems, which the Westlake facility did not have. It might have also led to training with onsite personnel on how to use the emergency generators.
And while EPA’s current RMP proposal acknowledges that the list of regulated substances needs to be updated, the agency proposes to address this in a future action, a choice that will further delay the process and, once again, fail to use the best available science to fully protect communities and workers. Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is required to review the list of regulated substances at least every five years, but it has not undertaken a review since 1998, and has not even added new chemicals since 1994. EPA needs to expand coverage of the rule for facilities like BioLab to be required to develop risk management plans.
EPA: stop passing the buck
The CSB report is timely, as EPA staff are currently writing the final rule, which is expected to be released this fall. Even in these intervening months, and as we head into hurricane season, we will likely face chemical incidents that could be prevented with stronger regulation. The final rule will also be a signal of the Biden administration’s commitment to environmental justice and whether its recent executive order will yield concrete action.
It is time for the EPA to issue strong rules to help prevent chemical disasters and to stop passing the buck. Too much is at stake, and too much has already been lost. Chemical disasters are not just one-time events – they interrupt and tear apart communities, with impacts that often persist for years. As a member of Air Alliance Houston shared at last year’s public hearing on the rule, “My cousin worries about a disaster every day when he goes to work at an RMP facility in Baytown but he feels like he can’t say or do anything about it. Well, the EPA can.”