The Government Accountability Office (GAO)–which is the non-partisan congressional watchdog agency-recently published a report finding that 1/3 of chemical facilities in the United States with risk management plans are at risk of future disasters due to climate change. In other words, if we don’t act, our country has multiple serious public health emergencies in waiting, the majority of which will impact communities of color and low-income communities. The good news is that you can use your voice now to help prevent these disasters from ever occurring.
The Risk Management Plan rule
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees a rule that governs how facilities containing dangerous chemicals manage risks: the risk management plan (RMP). The recent report from the GAO described the RMP rule as regulation that “requires certain facilities that make, use, handle, or store hazardous substances (chemicals) to develop and implement a risk management program to detect and prevent or minimize the consequences of an accidental release.” These chemical sites are known as “RMP facilities” and there are over 12,000 of them located throughout the United States.
RMP facilities contain various chemicals that are known to be dangerous to human health. Some examples of the chemicals contained at RMP facilities include chlorine, hydrogen sulfide, organic peroxides, and anhydrous ammonia–and exposure to any of these chemicals can be dangerous to human health. Exposure to chlorine gas, for example, can result in a condition known as pulmonary edema where fluid builds up in the lungs making it difficult for a person to breathe. Exposure to hydrogen sulfide may result in dizziness, headache, nausea, and, at high enough concentrations, can kill.
These dangers to human health are why the EPA’s RMP rule is needed,. There are weaknesses in the rule that the agency needs to address and strengthen. One of those weaknesses that the agency is currently tackling is that the current version of the rule does not require RMP facilities to adopt safer chemicals or practices–there are even cases where alternative versions are more affordable. The other weakness that the GAO, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and others have demonstrated is that RMP sites, and other hazardous facilities, need to be better prepared for the impending effects of climate change. In a 2020 report, we found that 2.5 million more people of color would be disproportionately affected by extreme flooding of hazardous facilities along the East and Gulf Coasts as compared to white communities. This was not shocking given prior research showing that people of color and the poor are more likely to live near chemical facilities.
The EPA is updating RMP
The EPA is currently working on developing and proposing a new RMP rule. The proposed rule is slated to be open for public comment by September 2022 with a final rule set to be issued by August 2023. The revision to the rule is part of the Biden administration’s ongoing efforts to bolster regulations in light of the effects of climate change, and to prioritize environmental justice. If you are a public health expert or a member of a community impacted by a chemical facility, now is a good time to ensure that your voice will be heard! The Union of Concerned Scientists issued an action alert today providing additional information on how public health experts–practitioners and researchers–can ensure they can help influence which issues the EPA will consider in their proposed rule. So, if you are a public health expert, then make sure to take action with us!
The EPA must listen to the underserved communities impacted most by RMP facilities, and also heed the research showing that climate change will require updates to risk management. Bolstering this rule in light of environmental justice and climate change concerns is no small feat and the agency must take this task very seriously–people’s lives are on the line. We applaud the agency for taking on this much needed update to the RMP rule and will continue to be engaged to ensure that science and community voices serve as the backbone of the proposed rule so that it best protects the health of the US public.