By Anita Desikan, Union of Concerned Scientists
If chemical facilities are regularly catching on fire or exploding in your neighborhood – like the recent TPC Group plant chemical fire near Houston that dangerously blazed during the Thanksgiving holiday – you would want the government to do something about it. You would want to know what is going on in these facilities. You would want to know what actions are being taken to prevent another catastrophe. And you would want to know that the lives of you, your family, friends and neighbors are being protected by the government through science-based rules and regulations.
But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Trump administration disagrees. The agency once again failed in its duty to protect the health of people by partially rolling back the Risk Management Program (RMP), also known as the Chemical Disaster Rule, which governs how industrial facilities can store dangerous and volatile chemicals. No longer will chemical facilities be required to provide public information about the toxins that they store. And no longer will chemical facilities be required to engage in commonsense measures for preventing accidents, such as analyzing safer technology and procedures, conducting an analysis on the root cause of major accidents, or obtaining a third-party audit when an accident has occurred. The Trump administration has previously targeted the RMP rule, by delaying its implementation for over a year (resulting in several serious chemical disasters), until the courts ordered otherwise. While this rollback was at least somewhat expected, it will prove to have a devastating impact on communities, workers, and first responders that live and work nearby the 12,000 industrial facilities that store dangerous chemicals across the country.
To learn about how communities of color and low-income communities will be affected by the rollback, I interviewed Yvette Arellano and Juan Parras from Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) and Dylan Burdette from Clean Power Lake County on the impacts on their communities in Houston, Texas and Lake County, Illinois, respectively. Their stories of combating pollution in their communities from nearby industrial facilities were previously highlighted in the report Abandoned Science, Broken Promises.
“Despair, but not unexpected despair” — Dylan Burdette (Clean Power Lake County)
Organizations representing frontline communities previously spent years working with government officials, industry representatives, and other stakeholders to help craft the RMP rule during the Obama administration. The RMP rule contained measures designed to protect the health and safety of nearby communities, workers, and first responders from disasters at chemical facilities and the rule was considered a big win for frontline communities.
“Was it perfect? No. Did it have massive flaws? Of course it did. It is just like anything else but we all agreed, everyone accepted that it would be pushed forward. And it was. And for years of work to be undone by a quick pen, that is a disgrace to the general public. And a public servant should never be allowed to undo commonsense pieces like chemical security.” – Yvette Arellano
The fact that the EPA struck out important provisions of the RMP rule was a real blow for community groups that have been advocating on this issue for years. While rollback was at least somewhat expected, it was nonetheless a heartbreaking decision for people living, working, and fighting for their communities.
“Hearing that the rollback [of the RMP] rule was finalized was one of the hardest hits because the RMP win was one of our biggest wins as an organization working on petrochemicals and toxic exposure in the heart of the industry… It really made us feel like our lives don’t matter.” – Yvette Arellano
“[Our reaction was] despair, but not unexpected despair… we are very disappointed and saddened but given the course of the federal government under this administration, we are not incredibly surprised.” – Dylan Burdette
And inevitably, the effects of the RMP rollback will fall disproportionately on marginalized communities.
“The expansions [of industrial facilities] are happening next to vulnerable communities that are low wealth communities, people of color communities that lack so many other things like healthcare… This is one of the worst things that can happen to our community because we are already so marginalized, we are already so vulnerable.” – Yvette Arellano
“These chemical facilities are terrorizing our communities” — Yvette Arellano (TEJAS)
A chemical fire can ravage a frontline community. According to Yvette Arellano, large and disastrous chemical fires seem to be occurring every other month in Houston; here is Yvette Arellano’s description of a previous chemical fire in Houston in March 2019 known as the Intercontinental Terminals Co fire:
“Four days of continuous fire. Six days of on and off fires erupting through… flame-retardant foam [which is also toxic]. We had children that were having nosebleeds, children who had developmental issues getting nosebleeds at school because the schools weren’t shutting down. We had folks sheltering in place, over eight cities were affected, entire cities had shelter-in-place borders… [This meant] covering the windows, doors, everything with plastic and being locked in your home for an [indeterminate] amount of time… You have no timeline. It is terrorizing. These chemical facilities are terrorizing our communities.” – Yvette Arellano
The RMP rollback will only exacerbate situations like these. Companies will no longer need to analyze what went wrong or what caused the situation when there are “near misses” (i.e. less devastating chemical disasters). And companies will no longer need to research safer technological alternatives that would protect nearby communities from acute and chronic exposures to toxic chemicals.
“There are a lot of people in our community that would really like for some of the chemical companies that live near us to look into safer alternatives, not only safer in terms of possible catastrophic events, but also safer in terms of chemical releases into the community.” – Dylan Burdette
But perhaps the most heart-wrenching part of all of this is that the EPA’s RMP rollback means that agency is valuing the short-term profits of already wealthy industry executives over the lives of people.
“Because the big barriers against it [the RMP rule] were that it was too expensive – that it was too expensive to update a facility that needs to be updated. Then what does it mean about our lives?” – Yvette Arellano
“It is inevitable that someone is going to get hurt and killed” – Juan Parras (TEJAS)
Workers at chemical facilities and first responders to disaster situations are particularly at risk of facing substantial harm due to this rollback by the Trump administration.
“I think [the RMP rollback] was a significant blow first of all to the plant workers and those that work in danger every day; it has minimized their safety issues. And when you talk about first responders, there’s a lot of avenues that show that if first responders have the information before they go in there, it would save a lot of lives.” – Juan Parras
Dismantling the RMP rule takes away the requirement that companies need to investigate near misses, which in turn could weaken worker safety protections.
“If you look at what is the cause of near misses, it is either continued non-compliance of safety regulations (which puts the workers at risk), or not [having] a real culture of safety on these sites, or workers that are not fully trained in safety protocols… [But because the rollback] removed that need to investigate near misses and look at the underlying root causes, [it also] removes that level of worker protection and makes the workers even more prone to being hurt.” – Dylan Burdette
And this model, to place profits for the wealthy few over people’s lives, inevitably destroys the ability of workers to even work at all. How can anyone show up to work at a destroyed factory?
“A chemical factory that blows up every five years is not a sustainable model for a long-term stable process… Factories that are being destroyed are not helping workers, they are not helping business long-term, they are only helping very short-sighted, short-term profits. And this is the thing that seems to be chased and pursued to the detriment of not only economic well-being but also the health well-being of communities at large.” – Dylan Burdette
When announcing the rollback, the EPA repeatedly emphasized that this rollback will help first responders. However, because the rollback also halted the ability of the public to find out what potentially dangerous chemicals are stored in chemical facilities, it will inevitably place first responders into harmful situations.
“For effects on first responders, what RPM does is that it allows first responders to have access to what chemicals are stored on site, how they are being stored, and under what kind of mechanical or technological controls are on them. So if there is some sort of a disaster, like an explosion or a fire, that is information that first responders have before they actually get to the site… the last thing you want is first responders showing up to a fire not knowing which tanks are potentially highly explosive [and] which tanks are potentially carcinogenic.” –Dylan Burdette
“Without the information [of what chemicals are stored] inside these plants, how are [first responders] going to purchase the proper equipment they need, whether it is masks, or suits?” – Yvette Arellano
“One life is more important to us than money” – Juan Parras (TEJAS)
Clean Power Lake County and TEJAS are already planning and strategizing on how to fight back against the Trump administration’s rollback, through raising awareness, advocating for local legislation, and by requesting better enforcement of health-based protections. The two groups plan on, or are already talking to, representatives from their county or state level governments, congressional leaders, EPA officials, first responders, environmental and science-based non-profits, and the media.
And these grassroots organizers have a message to all of you reading this blog post:
“I want them to know that people need to speak up… people can participate in the electoral process… A lot of folks have given up on voting because they just think that it doesn’t make a difference. But we still firmly believe that it does and we do encourage people to vote.” – Juan Parras
“And think about everyone that [your] vote impacts because even though someone… might not be living next to a chemical facility, there is a family that is. There is a child going to school next to a petrochemical plant… And it is important that people know that, know that those conditions don’t just exist in third world developing countries but that they exist in the US as they exist in the Gulf Coast, in the Ohio Valley, in California.” – Yvette Arellano