The Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters issued the following statement in response to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed “Modernization of the Accidental Release Prevention Regulations under Clean Air Act.”
As a result of President Obama’s August 1, 2013 Executive Order (#13650), the EPA took an important step in proposing that certain high risk chemical plants assess the feasibility of safer technologies. However, it will be a tragic missed opportunity if in the final rule the EPA allows these facilities to conceal the results of their assessments from the residents, schools, and hospitals near these facilities (as proposed by the Agency), and fails to prevent future disasters by requiring the use of safer alternatives for all hazardous facilities where they are feasible.
Since 2009 both consideration and adoption of inherently safer technologies were stated as “core principles” for chemical facility security by the Obama administration.
Among the other ways the proposed rule fails:
- It fails to require chemical facilities to send their safer alternatives analysis (STAA) to the EPA or share with the public.
- It exempts 87 percent of the 12,543 (RMP) chemical facilities from requirements to conduct STAAs, including water treatment facilities, some of which put major cities at risk of a catastrophic release of chlorine gas.
- Although the proposed rule’s projected annual cost would be a fraction of the average cost of damages wrought by chemical disasters, the rule fails to require facilities to assess the avoided costs and catastrophic liability facilities would benefit from by adopting safer chemical processes.
- It fails to establish a publicly accessible clearinghouse of safer available alternatives that could encourage and support the adoption of safer alternatives by more facilities.
- It suggests using a patch work of company web sites, libraries or government offices to disclose information on facility hazards to emergency planners and community residents, but fails to propose a one stop 24/7 access to the same information via an EPA web site.
- It fails to propose buffer zones around existing facilities or restrictions on the location of new facilities in populated areas.
As a result, most of the proposed rule is focused on post-disaster measures such as accident investigations, emergency response, evacuations and shelter in place. Without more emphasis on prevention, many more response resources will be needed for the additional incidents and resulting deaths, injuries and property damage that will occur.
According to the EPA “in the past 10 years nearly 60 people died, some 17,000 people were injured or sought medical treatment, and almost 500,000 people were evacuated or sheltered-in-place as a result of accidental releases at chemical plants. During that time, more than 1,500 incidents were reported causing over $2 billion in property damages.” Since the April 17, 2013 West, Texas disaster that inspired this rule there have been over 430 incidents and 82 deaths.
President Obama was a leader on prevention in the Senate and as President issued executive order. Posterity will not look kindly on our failure to prevent chemical disasters today.
The Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters is composed of over 100 environmental justice, labor, public health, national security, and environmental organizations.
Following an October 13, 2015 meeting with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, the Coalition proposed a compromise pilot program among five priority areas:
1) Require all RMP facilities to conduct and submit alternatives…building on lessons from the New Jersey IST program and other relevant state or local programs; require that these assessments include a comprehensive analysis of the financial benefits as well as safety enhancements of options and make these assessments publicly available.
2) Begin a pilot program to require IST implementation in a subset of RMP facility categories… such as waste water and drinking water treatment plants, bleach plants and hydrogen fluoride refineries, and for those facilities among the 2,000 high-risk facilities cited in the EPA’s National Enforcement Initiative (NEI) 2017-19 proposal…
3) Ensure the protection of disproportionately at-risk populations and underserved communities. Launch an immediate national emergency response survey to be completed within six months to assess the capacity of local first responders and medical facilities to respond to worst case chemical disaster scenarios as reported to the EPA through RMP facility reports. This would include assessment of training needs, availability of state-of-the art response and rescue equipment and hospital capacity…EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice could also consider providing Environmental Justice Partnership grants, including potentially to the same communities receiving TAG grants, to support community chemical facility accident prevention and response needs. Provide funding through the NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program for joint community and worker training in IST analysis, implementation and oversight.
4) Require the involvement of workers and their representative unions in the alternatives assessments and feasibility analyses of IST. Ensure that all facility employees have whistleblower protection (i.e., ability to anonymously report safety concerns), participate in inspections and in alternatives analyses assessments, and have adequate education and training to participate in those processes. Ensure that workers and communities are fully trained and empowered to participate in planning and reviewing assessments and decisions.
5) Increase the scope of reportable RMP elements to include “near misses” or process upsets, which will ensure that the industry records these events. In addition, the EPA should establish a clearinghouse of de-registered RMP facilities that have adopted safer chemicals or processes to eliminate catastrophic hazards. This information is critical in preventing future catastrophic events and is an essential transparency tool for future policy changes. There also needs to be improved public access to an expanded scope of RMP information, which currently is not accessible online and is difficult to interpret, even for those with technical training and industry experience.