New Report: One Year In, EPA Chemical Rule Delay Allows Chemical Disasters to Continue

April 3, 2018 | 2:55 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Research Director, Center for Science & Democracy

While news this week suggests that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is a walking ethics disaster, he’s long been paving the way for actual disasters—chemical disasters that is. A report released today, A Disaster in the Making, by community, environmental, health, workers, and scientist groups, illuminates how Pruitt’s unnecessary delay of the Chemical Disaster Rule continues to harm Americans.

More delays, more disasters

The report was released today by Earthjustice in partnership with the Union of Concerned Scientists, Coalition For A Safe Environment, Community In-Power & Development Association, Coming Clean, Environmental Justice & Health Alliance, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, and California Communities Against Toxics.

The key findings? One year after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s delay of the chemical disaster rule, otherwise known as the EPA Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule, several serious chemical incidents have occurred—many of which might have been prevented or mitigated by requirements in the rule. Specifically, the rule would have begun to prevent and reduce chemical disasters in communities near over 12,500 facilities nationwide if the Trump Administration had not abruptly suspended it one year ago, in March 2017.

The Arkema Crosby explosions

For example, a UCS report released last September found that the peroxide tank explosions at Arkema’s Crosby, Texas facility in the wake of Hurricane Harvey might have been prevented if such a rule had been implemented. The rule would have required better coordination between companies and emergency responders. Such coordination might have prevented the harmful exposure to chemicals endured by first responders on the scene in Crosby. The rule also requires that companies conduct analyses after accidents to determine their cause and what steps might be taken to prevent future incidents. For some facilities there are also provisions guiding companies toward use of inherently safer technologies and chemicals. For Arkema, a company with several past mishaps and accidental releases at its Crosby facility, such provisions might have made a difference post-Harvey.

The human toll

And these disasters aren’t happening in a vacuum. Families and communities are living every day with the threat of disasters and the nuisances of living next to a chemical facility. For many, this has meant tolerating health impacts like headaches, eye irritation, and worse. The report also details lived accounts by people on the frontlines of this issue. Take, for example, the account of Jesse Marquez, a resident of Wilmington, California:

“Both my office and home are located near oil refineries; I can hear the emergency alarms blaring at all hours of the day and night,” says Jesse Marquez, who lives in Wilmington, California, a part of greater Los Angeles. “This has been happening my entire life.”

Mr. Marquez traces his civic activism to push for a cleaner, safer environment to the day four decades ago when deadly explosions at the oil refinery opposite his family’s house knocked them off their feet and sent a fireball overhead. He ran outside and jumped over a fence, and then heard a woman’s voice begging him to stop.

“I turned around and there was a woman with a baby in her hand, about six or seven months old. She was burned, the baby’s blanket was burned, and the baby’s face was burned. She said, ‘Please save my baby.’ She then threw the baby over the fence like a football for me to catch.”

Or consider the experience of Hilton Kelley of Port Arthur, Texas:

“I was dealing with a couple of crises at once after Harvey,” says Hilton Kelley, who lives near a refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, a majority black and Latino community. “The restaurant me and my wife own was flooded and severely damaged, and my father-in-law’s house was also damaged and flooded. While trying to help my family and neighbors get back on their feet, we were also being subjected to toxic and hazardous substances with virtually no protection.”

Last September, shortly after the hurricane struck, fire broke out at the refinery near Kelley’s home as workers were trying to get it running again. He and other local residents were ordered to stay inside shelter, he says.

“I take my granddaughter to the park twice a week but I can’t really enjoy my time with her because I’m worried about her being harmed by toxic substances,” he says.

We need protection from chemical risks now

Jesse, Hilton, and the rest of the nation don’t need to live like this. About 177 million Americans live in the worst-case scenario zones for chemical disasters and at least one in three schoolchildren attends a school within the vulnerability zone of a hazardous facility. The Chemical Disaster Rule includes much-needed improvements to the EPA’s Clean Air Act Risk Management Program (RMP) and would prevent and reduce chemical disasters, hazardous releases and resulting chemical exposures, while strengthening emergency preparedness and coordination with local first responders. When developing the rule, the EPA determined that prior protections failed to prevent over 2,200 chemical accidents around the country during a 10-year period, including about 150 incidents per year that caused reportable harm.

UCS has joined the legal fight to challenge the Trump administration on the needless and harmful delay of the chemical disaster rule. We are being represented by Earthjustice along with the Environmental Integrity ProjectSierra ClubCoalition For A Safe Environment (Wilmington, California), Del Amo Action Committee (Torrance, California), California Communities Against Toxics, Louisiana Bucket BrigadeAir Alliance HoustonCommunity In-Power & Development Association (Port Arthur, Texas), Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy ServicesClean Air Council (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (West Virginia). The United Steelworkers Union, fenceline communities, workers, scientists and 11 states are also fighting in the courts to help ensure that future communities and workers are safe from chemical disasters. Our families deserve this.