UPDATE, Wednesday, June 20: On the morning of Peter Wright’s hearing, Union of Concerned Scientists was one of 100 public interest organizations signed onto a letter delivered to the United States Senate opposing the nomination of Peter Wright to lead the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management due to his close connections with the industry he would be charged with overseeing. The full text of the letter can be found online here.
Peter Wright, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, will face the Senate Environment and Public Works committee at his nomination hearing this Wednesday. Mr. Wright has spent the majority of his career working as an attorney for Dow Chemical Company (now DowDuPont). Would he make a smooth transition from defender of polluters to defender of the public? Under Pruitt’s lead, it seems unlikely that public safety would be at the top of his agenda.
As I wrote back in April, Mr. Wright is on tap to lead the EPA’s chemical hazards arm, including the Superfund program and the Risk Management Program (RMP). The agency is currently “reconsidering” the Chemical Disaster Rule, which would have improved the RMP by helping to make the communities surrounding the 12,500 facilities regulated under the program safer and better informed.
DowDuPont itself, or one of its subsidiaries, owns over 50 RMP facilities. An analysis of EPA data on accidents at those facilities shows that Dow, DuPont, and their subsidiaries averaged 7 chemical disaster incidents per year, for a total of 99 fires, explosions, spills or gas releases from 2004 to 2016. These accidents resulted in the deaths of 6 workers and caused over 200 people to be hospitalized or seek medical treatment for injuries.
Here are just a few accounts of accidents from those DowDuPont facilities:
- At Dow’s Texas Operations plant in Freeport, TX, there have been a series of reported accidents from 2004 to 2016. One July 2014 fire resulted in $200,000 property damage, and a liquid spill later that month injured two employees. Then, in July 2015, a gas release and liquid spill shut down a major highway for several hours. Neither the city of Freeport nor its residents were informed by Dow Chemical; instead they learned of the release from the local news network. Freeport’s fire chief, who should have been notified by Dow through the community awareness and emergency response line, told reporters, “We can’t be left in the dark while we are trying to protect our community.”
- In Hahnville, LA, Dow’s St. Charles operations had a chemical leak of ethyl acrylate in July 2009. Parish residents reported respiratory impacts that sent almost 30 people to the hospital with eye and nose irritation. Dow notified the St. Charles Parish Emergency Operations Center (EOC) about the leak, but it was unclear whether the EOC had adequate information from the company about the chemical’s risks. This facility has continued to have issues, including a 2014 liquid spill that injured one worker and a 2015 gas release that injured three plant employees.
- A particularly infamous DuPont facility accident occurred at its insecticide plant in La Porte, TX in November 2014. Two workers died when exposed to methyl mercaptan as they were attempting to fix what they thought was a routine problem, and two other workers died after responding to the others’ distress call. After an investigation into the disaster, Chemical Safety Board chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland said that “this investigation has uncovered weaknesses or failures in DuPont’s safety planning and procedures.” These weaknesses included inadequate gas detectors, nonfunctional ventilation fans, outdated alarms, no system in place to measure the quantity of toxins leaked beyond property lines, an inadequate process of assembling an internal response team, and nonfunctional emergency vehicles. This plant had been fined in the past for spills and gas releases that had injured workers. In 2015, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued penalties summing $273,000 to DuPont for a variety of violations at this plant, and the company finally announced that it would be closing the plant in 2016.
Note that all three of these facilities are at increased risk of flooding due to hurricanes, like the disaster at the Crosby, TX Arkema plant as a result of Hurricane Harvey last summer. Improvements to the chemical safety rule would have helped facilities plan how to manage for future floods, including implementing plans crucial for mitigating incidents and exposures. As EPA prepares to rescind such improvements, Administrator Scott Pruitt is allowing business as usual at these facilities, which face the increased threat of potential flooding, spills, and releases as a result of natural disasters.
Accidents at chemical facilities that may injure and sometimes kill plant workers and residents of nearby communities are not to be taken lightly. There have been 46 such incidents already this year. The future head of OLEM should be advocating for changes at plants that help to prevent disasters like these from ever happening. The Chemical Disaster Rule would have helped to ensure that adequate measures were in place so that emergency responders have rapid access to chemical risks before entering buildings after reports of a spill or release.
Mr. Wright has spent years defending Dow Chemical Co, a member of the American Chemistry Council, which has lobbied long and hard to avoid more safety precautions for chemical plants to save its member companies the money it would cost to make critical preparedness updates. At his hearing on Wednesday, Senators should ask Wright for one reason to trust that he would be looking after the public interest in his role at OLEM, because advocates in favor of the RMP amendments who spoke at last week’s public comment hearing certainly don’t see a 20-year run at Dow Chemical as supporting evidence. Perhaps Savannah Georgia community organizer Mildred McClain characterized the current situation best when she told the EPA, “If industries were authentic in their pursuit of justice for the communities, they would listen to the voices of the residents…The companies will just keep saying ‘I’m meeting the EPA standard’ while the community members are saying, ‘but we’re sick, we still smell stuff and we still don’t have a concrete plan as to what we’d do if there was a major disaster.”
While we wait to see how Mr. Wright responds to Senate questioning this week, there is still plenty of time to comment on the EPA’s proposed rule which is open until June 29th. You can join us in urging Pruitt to consider worker and community health over industry costs by submitting a comment today. For assistance developing a strong comment, check out this RMP public comment guide.
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