By Pallavi Phartiyal, Union of Concerned Scientists
This week marks the close of the public comment period for a little-known yet important proposed rule, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Risk Management Program (RMP), aimed to improve the safety and security of over 12,000 facilities that use or store hazardous chemicals nationwide (see map). As is true for many other polluting industries, these facilities tend to be disproportionately localized in communities of color and low-income communities. EPA data show that there have been more than 1,500 accidents at RMP facilities, about 500 of which had off-site impacts. These accidents were responsible for nearly 60 deaths, requiring medical treatment for some 17,000 people, forcing almost 500,000 people to evacuate or shelter-in-place, and causing more than $2 billion in property damages.
The proposed improvements by EPA have been almost 2.5 years in the making, since the April 2013 explosion at a fertilizer facility in West, Texas that killed 15 people and prompted President Obama to issue Executive Order (EO) 13650 for “Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security.” At UCS, we have been advocating for a strong update to the RMP rule in protecting communities from chemical accidents and disasters. We’ve informed the agency’s proposal through our early input, meetings, presentations, coalition participation, and community survey. More importantly, we’ve channeled the concerns and support for a strong RMP rule from 730 scientists and more than 17,000 concerned individuals directly to the agency.
UCS priorities for EPA’s RMP rule
Today, we submitted our public comment to EPA’s proposal in which we ask the agency to finalize an RMP rule that reduces the risk of toxic chemical release by emphasizing prevention, expanding use of safer chemicals and technologies and the scope of chemicals covered, and improving public access to information and emergency planning. I sat down with our senior fellow, Ron White, to take a deeper dive into our comments and the significance of the rule for communities. Read along:
Why does the public comment period matter?
The public comment period is an opportunity for fenceline communities who are most at risk from chemical facility accidents to advocate for the strongest and most effective revisions to the RMP rule. Also it provides public interest organizations, technical experts and agencies such as the federal Chemical Safety Board with the opportunity to provide information that EPA should consider in finalizing RMP regulations.
What does the rule mean for communities near chemical facilities?
The proposed rule includes requirements that have the potential to improve public health and safety protections for some communities, such as:
- The highest-risk facilities covered under the RMP program would be required to investigate the underlying cause of accidents that had, or could have had, a catastrophic release of a toxic chemical. Further, in a proposed improvement, EPA may require facilities to submit audits performed by an independent third party.
- Facilities in the chemical, paper and petroleum-coal products manufacturing industries would be required to conduct a safer technology and alternatives analysis (STAA) to evaluate the feasibility of any safer technology identified.
- Owners or operators of all high-risk facilities would be required to ensure that their emergency contact information for first responders is accurate and complete, and coordinate with the local emergency response committees (LEPCs) at least once a year to ensure that resources and capabilities are in place to respond to an accidental release. Some of these facilities would be required to conduct field exercises every five years and a simulation exercise annually. Facilities that have an accident would also have to conduct a full field exercise within a year of the accident.
- Some of the highest risk facilities would be required, upon request, to provide local emergency response agencies with information on compliance audits; emergency response exercises; accident history and investigation reports; and any safer technologies planned or implemented at the facility. The proposed rule would also require all facilities to hold a public meeting for the local community within a specified timeframe after an accident.
How can the proposed rule be strengthened and why are these changes so important?
EPA’s proposal could be greatly strengthened by requiring all highest-risk RMP facilities to conduct STAAs, prioritizing facilities in sectors such as wastewater treatment and bleach manufacturing, where safer technologies have been well established. EPA should require that STAA be available to the interested public and that safer alternatives identified through assessment be implemented.
The agency should emphasize prevention by expanding the scope of chemicals covered by the RMP program to include dangerous chemicals such as ammonium nitrate, which killed and injured people in West, Texas in 2013. Plus, more health-protective guidelines should be used in assessing the amount of chemicals used or stored by facilities and for assessing the impacts of a worst-case accident.
Last but not least, EPA should ensure public access to information on chemical hazards, their health impacts, summaries of STAAs, and emergency response information via a centralized EPA website rather than a patchwork of facility websites, public libraries or government offices.
When would chemical plant safety begin to look different on the ground as a result of this revised rule?
The proposed rule is not expected to be effective until the middle of next year. This prolonged timeline places it at a risk of not getting finalized if chemical facility safety is not a priority for the incoming administration. Thus it’s essential that the rule be finalized before the end of the current administration. Further, with the exception of the improved emergency response coordination requirements, which would be implemented one year after the rule is effective; all other proposed improvements will not be seen on the ground until 2021.
Time for EPA to strengthen public health protections
UCS joins thousands of concerned individuals, environmental justice and public health advocates, and scientists and medical professionals, in demanding that the EPA put public health and safety protections first in finalizing a strong and effective chemical safety rule.