The Big Spring Refinery

The Big Spring Refinery is shown on October 4, 2023 in Big Spring, Texas.

(Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

EPA Praised for Boost to 'Lifesaving' Protections From Chemical Incidents

One campaigner called it "a foundational step toward protecting the health and safety of communities and workers on the fenceline of the petrochemical industry."

Hazardous chemical incidents such as explosions, fires, and toxic releases happen almost daily in the United States, often at fossil fuel facilities, and the Biden administration won praise on Friday for stepping up safeguards for impacted communities.

Dionne Delli-Gatti, associate vice president of community engagement at Environmental Defense Fund, was among the public health and environmental justice advocates applauding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for what she called "a foundational step toward protecting the health and safety of communities and workers on the fenceline of the petrochemical industry."

The agency finalized changes to a Risk Management Program (RMP) that covers 11,740 facilities across the country. Noting that many communities "vulnerable to chemical accidents are in overburdened and underserved areas," EPA Administrator Michael Regan framed the rule as a key piece of the administration's "commitment to advancing environmental justice."

"The new rule, while not perfect, will go a long way to protect people's health."

Accidental releases from RMP facilities cost over $540 million annually and highly impact approximately 131 million people who live within three miles of such sites—including 44 million earning less than or equal to twice the poverty level, 32 million who identify as Hispanic or Latino, and 20 million who identify as Black or African American, according to EPA estimates.

"Over 1 in every 3 schoolchildren in the U.S. attends a school within the danger zone of these facilities. Children are uniquely vulnerable to the health impacts caused by toxic chemical exposures such as respiratory illnesses and cancers," said Moms Clean Air Force vice president Dominique Browning. "Moms—and all caregivers—support EPA's important step in the strengthening of the Risk Management Program. We urge EPA to swiftly implement and enforce the new rules to help protect the health and safety of all children."

As the EPA summarized, the amendments include:

  • Requiring a safer technologies and alternatives analysis, and in some cases, implementation of reliable safeguard measures for certain facilities in industry sectors with high accident rates;
  • Advancing employee participation, training, and opportunities for employee decision-making in facility accident prevention;
  • Reiterating the allowance of a partial or complete process shutdown in the event of a potential catastrophic release;
  • Implementing a process to allow employees and their representatives to anonymously report specific unaddressed hazards;
  • Requiring third-party compliance audits and root cause analysis incident investigation for facilities that have had a prior accident;
  • Enhancing facility planning and preparedness efforts to strengthen emergency response by ensuring chemical release information is timely shared with local responders and a community notification system is in place to warn the community of any impending release;
  • Emphasizing the requirement for regulated facilities to evaluate risks of natural hazards and climate change, including any associated loss of power; and
  • Increasing transparency by providing access to RMP facility information for communities nearby.

"While there is certainly more that must be done to prevent chemical disasters, EPA's rule is a major step forward for ensuring that the most hazardous facilities implement safer technologies and provide greater public access to information," said Earthjustice attorney Kathleen Riley. "We urge industry to implement these lifesaving measures without delay."

Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, which brings together labor unions and environmental groups, also welcomed the update, stressing that "a strong RMP rule empowers workers and saves lives. It protects workers and emergency responders and safeguards communities in the shadow of these chemical facilities."

Jennifer Jones, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Center for Science and Democracy, pointed out that "the previous administration severely weakened those rules, depriving communities of information about what hazardous chemicals they might be exposed to and rolling back critical safety requirements intended to protect workers at facilities covered by the RMP."

"In recent years, hundreds of chemical incidents have occurred at facilities covered by the RMP—imposing a serious cost to workers and people living in harm's way, as well as to first responders and local governments that have to deal with the aftermath," Jones continued. "The new rule, while not perfect, will go a long way to protect people's health."

The Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, which has tracked incidents involving hazardous chemicals since January 2021, documented at least 323 events last year, at least 81 of which occurred at RMP facilities.

"We're glad that EPA stood its ground despite strong industry pressure and required more RMP facilities to report on safer chemicals and processes that could be implemented to prevent chemical disasters," Maya Nye, federal policy director at coalition member Coming Clean, said Friday. "This establishes an important precedent."

"We will continue urging EPA to require all RMP facilities to identify and transition to safer chemicals and processes in accordance with the principles laid out in the Louisville Charter for Safer Chemicals, as part of our ongoing work to transform the chemical industry so that it's no longer a source of harm," Nye added.

Michele Roberts, co-coordinator of another coalition member, the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, celebrated the EPA's new online database for RMP facilities, and highlighted that "communities have been asking for this information for decades."

"We have a right to know whether our houses, schools, and places of worship are threatened by a potential chemical disaster," she said. "We look forward to a time when a database on RMP facility and hazard information will no longer be needed because every facility will have transitioned to safe chemicals and processes, but in the meantime EPA making this critical information more accessible to communities is a huge step."

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