By Yogin Kothari, Union of Concerned Scientists
As you may know, Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is delaying or “reconsidering” numerous science-based safeguards, generally at the behest of industry. One of the rules caught in this delay is a very important update to the EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP). After initially staying the rule for 60 days and then an additional 90 days, Administrator Pruitt has proposed a new rule to delay the implementation of the RMP update until February 2019. My colleague covered how ridiculous the idea is here.
Earlier today, EPA held a public hearing in Washington, D.C. in order to hear comments from stakeholders on a potential delay (let’s not overlook the fact that the only hearing on this proposal was being held in Washington, far away from many of the low-income communities and communities of color that would have the most to lose if the rule were to delayed).
UCS took this opportunity to provide some initial feedback and amplify the voices of many of the affected communities who could not attend the public hearing today. My colleagues Charise Johnson, Amy Gutierrez, and myself, all testified. You can see our prepared comments below.
The agency is currently taking written comments on the proposed delay. We hope that you will join us and tell Administrator Pruitt that the time for delays is over. The EPA should immediately implement its updates to the RMP rule.
Comments by Yogin Kothari:
Thank you for this opportunity to speak on the proposed effective date of the Risk Management Program (RMP) Rule final amendments.
My name is Yogin Kothari. I am here both as a concerned citizen and on behalf of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. With more than 500,000 members and supporters across the country and across the political spectrum, we work to improve public policy through the application of rigorous and independent science. We also advocate for adequate transparency and integrity in our democratic institutions, along with improved public access to government scientific information.
Last year, I testified at a public hearing hosted by the EPA, alongside community and industry stakeholders, on the importance of modernizing EPA’s RMP rule, which had not been updated in over two decades.
It was heartening to see EPA take my remarks, along with those of more than 60,000 others over the course of two years, to carefully inform and finalize a rule that requires covered facilities to follow common sense best practices to enhance emergency preparedness and makes communities safer.
The process to finalize the final amendments was extensive and rigorous. Everyone had ample opportunity to participate. This included multi-agency stakeholder input, public listening sessions throughout the country, multiple national webinars, a request for information before the proposed rulemaking, a small business advocacy review panel, a regulatory impact analysis, a notice and comment period, and extensive interagency and OIRA review.
Ultimately, it became evident that there was a critical need to update the RMP rule to prevent injury and death for workers, first responders, and fenceline communities, especially for low-income communities and communities of color, which live in the shadow of danger from many high-risk chemical facilities.
That is why it is shocking, and extremely disappointing, that the EPA has decided to hold this hearing in Washington, D.C. because many communities across the country that have the most to lose if this rule were delayed don’t have an opportunity to make their case today.
Let me be clear: by delaying the implementation of this rule, and by denying impacted communities a voice in this absurd reconsideration, you are putting the public at risk. Think of this as you go back to your comfortable Washington, D.C. home tonight: if this rule is further delayed, these communities will continue to face increased risks of a chemical disaster. These communities know better than almost anyone in this room the importance of these basic protections.
When the initial delay was announced, many community organizations, from California to Texas to Delaware to New Jersey, expressed their dismay. The NJ Work Environment Council (NJ WEC), a coalition of about 70 labor, community, and environmental organizations working for safe, secure jobs and a healthy, sustainable environment, said:
“The RMP Rule final amendments should be implemented immediately. This is an opportunity for EPA to take action and ensure industries using hazardous substances are safer and more secure. We see no credible reason to delay implementation given the amount of stakeholder engagement, including industry, safety advocates, and other federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”
Furthermore, they said, these modest requirements are needed to save lives. Improving coordination between chemical facilities, firefighters, and other local emergency planners and first responders is a common-sense reform. I could not agree more.
NJWEC also shared:
“New Jersey has already proven to be a successful testing ground for implementing a safer technology analysis. In 2008, New Jersey adopted rules that required facilities to conduct inherently safer technology (IST) reviews and submit reports to the state.
These reviews have prodded facility management to take measures to protect millions of workers and community residents from serious, preventable hazards. For example, in New Jersey nearly 300 water and wastewater treatment plants that formerly used highly dangerous chlorine have switched to safer processing methods.
There’s no reason to delay these federal requirements, especially when we look at the success of New Jersey.”
The modest improvements to the RMP rule, which in reality are best practices, should take effect now. Communities and scientists have long been calling for an update. EPA’s own data showed that there were more than 1,500 serious incidents at covered facilities from 2004 – 2013, resulting in 58 preventable deaths and more than 17,000 preventable injuries. If the rule were to be delayed until 2019, can we really afford to have an additional 300+ incidents that will result in additional injuries and death when we know that we had an opportunity to put some key best practices in place to prevent these disasters?
When accidents and disasters happen, fenceline community members (including children in many cases), frontline workers, and first responders will unnecessarily remain in harm’s way. EPA finalized this rule to help prevent chemical disasters and save lives.
Communities across the country do not need more process. They do not need more delays. They need action.
Comments by Charise Johnson:
Thank you for this opportunity to speak on the proposed rule to further delay the effective date of the Risk Management Program Rule final amendments..
My name is Charise Johnson. I am here on behalf of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. With more than 500,000 members and supporters across the country, we are a nonpartisan, non-profit group, dedicated to improving public policy through rigorous and independent science. The Center for Science and Democracy at UCS advocates for improved transparency and integrity in our democratic institutions, especially those making science-based public policy decisions.
We also work to improve public access to government scientific information. The final amendments include crucial improvements to public access to RMP data. A delay of this rule is a delay in access to information that the public has a right to know and hampers the ability of affected communities to know and prepare for chemical risks.
I first want to recognize that many of the communities that would be most impacted by a decision to delay the updates to the RMP rule are also the communities that lack representation, and the ones whose voices are often drowned out. In my comments, I hope to amplify their voices, and their continuous fight for environmental justice.
Despite years of petitioning the federal government to adopt stronger measures to prevent chemical disasters, this is the first major update to the prevention requirements of EPA’s chemical Risk Management Program in more than 20 years, adding important, modest protections for vulnerable communities. The rule seeks to prevent accidental releases at facilities that use or store certain extremely dangerous chemical substances and require facilities to conduct inherently safer technology reviews. Fence-line communities face the highest danger along with workers and first-responders when these accidents occur. Maybe you have been fortunate enough NOT to have to worry about an explosion, fire, or leak from the over 12,000 facilities that use or store toxic chemicals in the U.S and are covered by this rule. But many of our families and communities—especially communities of color or low income communities — are not so lucky.
This is the case for our partners from Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, or TEJAS. In 2015, TEJAS invited me to join a “toxics tour” through the East Houston community of Manchester. Within 15 minutes, I had to ask if we could please roll the windows up, because I was having difficulty breathing. The air was thick and sweet with benzene emissions from a nearby facility. The smoke plumes rising from a nearby refinery set the backdrop for the only community park, a park where children were playing. Metal crushing facilities bordered the ship channel on one side, on the other, a public bike trail. This is real life every day for the people living in Manchester, as well as other communities and neighborhoods across the country.
More often than not, the people facing the greatest risks are people of color and/or living in poverty. In a recent report, UCS and TEJAS found that in Houston, for example, a significant population of the communities of Harrisburg/Manchester and Galena Park live within one mile of an RMP facility. 90 percent of the population in Harrisburg/Manchester and nearly 40 percent of the population in Galena Park lives near an RMP facility. These communities are predominantly made up of people of color and have higher poverty rates than the rest of the city.
We are disheartened that the long-awaited revision to the RMP rule has been delayed. The amendments to the RMP rule could and will reduce risks associated with and improve emergency response to catastrophic chemical facility incidents. By delaying the rule, we are deciding to put the best interests of industry over public health; we are continuing to keep communities at risk. This rule is critical for fence-line communities, workers in these facilities, and those first responders who arrive at these facilities during an accident.
Comments by Amy Gutierrez:
Thank you for this opportunity to speak on the proposed delay of the effective date of the Risk Management Program (RMP) Rule final amendments.
My name is Amy Gutierrez. I am here both as a concerned citizen and on behalf of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. I am also here on behalf of our half million members, both scientists and activists who believe that science should have a pivotal role in public policy.
I want to highlight three sections of the rule that I think are critical and should be implemented as soon as possible. The first, analysis of inherently safer technologies. This should be considered a business best practice. The facility is not required to implement these safer technologies, nor do they have to release this information to the public, rather a business should know if there are ways to make their work safer for their workers and those who live near the facility. Second, third party audits for accidents or near misses. This also represents a business best practice. If I owned a business and something went awry, I would want to get to the bottom of the incident to make my operations safer. Last is better coordination of emergency management and personnel. Regardless of the cause of the West Fertilizer plant explosion, emergency responders and Local Emergency Planning Commissions should have knowledge of critical information before running into the facility. Had this coordination been in effect, those 12 firefighters who heroically ran into the plant would be here today.
I would like to close with a community focus. I know our partners the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) will be speaking but I wanted to highlight my trip to Manchester and its effect on my outlook of this rule. The communities most affected by this rule are for the most part not in this room today. But make no mistake; their lives are the ultimate measurement of the need for this rule to take place as soon as possible. I went on a toxics tour with TEJAS and couldn’t help but notice that as they took me by a road of the chemical facilities that on the other side were homes. Outside those homes two children were playing soccer in a parking lot, breathing in these releases while trying to enjoy a summer day. I have family that lives in the neighboring city of Pasadena, TX and I worry whenever I see a news notice that another chemical release has occurred that they are outside during recess. No community and no family should have to worry about a chemical disaster taking their partner, child, or local hero from their lives. I urge you to implement this rule as soon as possible for those fence line communities who need these common sense protections most.
Just a reminder: UCS provided extensive comments during the development of the updates to the RMP rule, and many of our members and partners joined in support. We hope that you will continue to join us in championing common-sense best practices at high-risk chemical facilities and enhanced emergency preparedness measures in order to protect fenceline communities, workers, and first responders.