What Scott Pruitt Still Gets Wrong About Chemical Safety Post-Hurricane Harvey

September 12, 2017 | 10:58 am
Emergency workers entering a chemical plant.North Carolina National Guard/CC BY-ND 2.0 (Flickr)
Yogin Kothari
Former Contributor

In a recent interview with ABC’s “Powerhouse Politics” podcast, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was asked about the agency’s role in responding to Hurricanes Irma and Harvey and the devastation caused in Florida and Texas by the natural disasters. During the conversation, one of the hosts asked Administrator Pruitt about the EPA’s Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule and his decision to delay implementation of the amendments to modernize the standards for chemical facility safety (relevant because a chemical plant covered by this rule exploded after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston).

In the subsequent back and forth, Administrator Pruitt said something very concerning. He argued that one of the reasons the EPA delayed the new rule was not to limit information to the communities living next to chemical plants, but due to national security concerns. He argued that the 12,500 chemical plants covered under the RMP are in fact soft targets for terrorists. He went on to say that if you had too much information in the RMP, terrorists could use that and cause harm to the communities.

But this is not an accurate or truthful portrayal of the RMP amendments. Administrator Pruitt is either willfully ignorant or simply confused about how the RMP works currently and the updated rule.

First responders, workers, and fenceline communities need easier access to information so that they can be better prepared for chemical facility disasters.

First responders, workers, and fenceline communities need easier access to information so that they can be better prepared for chemical facility disasters.

First, the new rule does not require additional information to that which must already be disclosed to the public under existing laws and regulations. What the updated rule does do is provide an easier avenue of access to RMP data for local communities and emergency responders. If the updated rule was implemented, facilities would have to disclose certain basic information (such as 5-year accident history, safety data sheets, planned emergency exercises, and evacuation information) directly upon request from the public. Under current regulation, the public has to visit Federal Reading Rooms or file public records requests to gather this information in what is a really time-consuming and overly burdensome process.

Second, the RMP amendments were developed in close consultation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) so that the final rule is consistent with anti-terrorism standards and ensure that national security concerns are appropriately addressed. In fact, in its own FAQs about the RMP amendments, the EPA highlights that it coordinated the rulemaking closely with DHS and security professionals so that the agency could “strike a balance between information sharing and security.” The EPA already struck a balance between national security concerns and the safety of workers, communities, and first responders when it finalized the RMP amendments.

EPA, implement the RMP amendments

The bottom line is that Administrator Pruitt’s desire to cloak his actions to delay a critical public safety and security safeguard is unjustified and flagrantly irresponsible. If he truly cares about public safety as he claims, the most immediate threat is already here. A lack of access to crucial chemical safety information led first responders to be needlessly exposed and caused mass confusion among the public and media as we scrambled to assess public risks.

By pivoting to national security, Administrator Pruitt is simply shifting the responsibility for his actions to gut a public protection that should have been implemented months ago. First responders in Houston are already suing Arkema for gross negligence (a reminder, Arkema submitted comments opposing the RMP amendments, specifically raising concerns about sharing information with first responders and the public). This is exactly why we need to have the updated regulations implemented right away. The RMP amendments, among other things, would result in:

  • Better access to information for emergency first responders and communities, along with a specific charge to improve coordination between facilities and emergency personnel
  • Ensuring that lessons are learned from serious accidents
  • A requirement that facilities with the worst accident records assess options for safer alternatives to remove hazards

The Union of Concerned Scientists has a long history of advocating for stronger chemical facility safety protections. We have submitted extensive comments to the EPA asking the agency to do more to secure chemical facilities and ensure safety for fenceline communities. We have worked in partnership with our colleagues at Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), based in Houston, on a report highlighting the impact chemical facilities have had on neighboring communities for several years, if not decades, and the need for stronger chemical facility safety regulations. And as a result of Administrator Pruitt’s decision to postpone implementation of the RMP amendments, we have joined community and environmental justice groups, including t.e.j.a.s., in litigation to force the agency to reverse its decision.

Before Administrator Pruitt says that this is not the right time to talk about the RMP and chemical facility safety (like he did with climate change), let me just say that it’s not just the right time to talk about the science of the risks that these communities face, it’s actually long overdue. The New York Times reported that more than 40 sites have released approximately 4.6 million pounds of hazardous airborne pollutants due to Hurricane Harvey. The EPA needs to act to improve safety at chemical plants by immediately implementing the updates to the RMP rule. Fenceline communities in Houston and around the country, which are predominantly low-income communities and communities of color, cannot afford to wait any longer.