Unlike hurricanes, tornadoes, and super storms, chemical accidents and explosions in refineries, storage facilities, fertilizer and chemical plants are not natural disasters. They are also not rare events. We have seen their deadly and costly consequences far too often. Advances in meteorology have greatly enhanced opportunities for natural disaster preparedness. Sandy and Katrina have clearly demonstrated the power and impact of such storms on our lives, homes, and infrastructure. And the recent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was surely a wakeup call on the potential of hurricanes, floods, and tsunamis to compromise electrical power and greatly compound an impending disaster.
Natural events may not be preventable, but many of the consequences are. Housing can be constructed so that there is no structural collapse in the event of an earthquake. Vulnerable facilities can be hardened, located, or re-located away from populated areas, and away from fault lines, flood plains, and water ways that further heighten the risks of chemical accidents. But more fundamentally, inherently unsafe facilities and operations can be redesigned, retrofitted, and ultimately replaced by manufacturing and storage facility changes in inputs, final products, and processes that are inherently safer.
Inherent safety approaches differ from what is called secondary prevention which involves the strengthening of reaction vessels and pipes, the use of neutralizing baths, and the venting of toxic or explosive chemicals. Inherent safety approaches result in creating production and storage facilities with significantly smaller probabilities of having untoward human and commercial disasters. The European Union, but not the United States, in three successively more-demanding versions of its Seveso Directive (1982, 1996, 2012), adopted a hierarchy of prevention approaches favoring inherent safety approaches over secondary prevention for chemical accident prevention.
The Union Carbide Bhopal pesticide plant explosion in 1984 could have been wholly avoided by the construction of an inherently safer plant, which was then already used by DuPont to make the same pesticide at other locations. That notorious explosion hastened the 1990 passage of Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act. In 1996, twelve years after the Bhopal explosion, EPA promulgated its first requirement that certain high-hazard industries issue a risk management plan (RMP) to prevent chemical accidents. This was one of two chemical safety interventions contemplated by the Clean Air Act. Although professional, environmental, community, and some industry advocates urged EPA to prioritize inherent safety approaches over secondary prevention — as had the European Union four years earlier. EPA caved in to massive industry pressure and announced it had “decided not to mandate inherently safer technology analysis” (61 Fed. Reg. 31, 69). This analysis, which would have required the identification of alternative inherently safer inputs, final products, and processes would have established the basis for the ultimate adoption of inherently safer technology.
The second intervention created in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act to encourage the reduction of chemical accidents was the creation of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (otherwise known as the Chemical Safety Board or CSB). Despite CSB’s checkered history of industry opposition and interference, funding and staffing problems, and leadership failures, many of its investigations and recommendations systematically improved chemical safety.
Prompted by the fertilizer explosion that consumed West, TX, on January 13, 2017, EPA published the Chemical Disaster Rule, a revised set of more stringent requirements than the 1996 RMP. This was the result of an agency analysis of 2,200 chemical accidents that occurred in the period 2004 to 2013, over 1500 of which caused harm. This included 58 deaths, more than 17,000 people injured, hospitalized, or forced to seek remedial care, as well as $2 billion in property damage. Once again, however, the EPA did not adopt inherent safety approaches as a preferred required practice, although the U.S. history of recent disasters should have mandated it in the interest of public and worker safety.
The revised rule would have enhanced protection for local first responders, community members, and employees from death or injury due to chemical facility accidents. It was due to have come into force, requiring covered facilities to comply at various future times. In June, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt ordered a 20-month year delay in implementation of the rule. The rule’s more stringent provisions did not require inherent safety approaches, but did require designated operations to assess whether safety improvements were practicable. These improvements included storing fewer chemicals, using better tanks, improving backup power systems, i.e., feasible, effective, and immediately-needed improvements, even if they did not include inherently safer alternatives. The rule also had more stringent requirements for data accessibility and emergency planning.
We all know that changes in chemical production, manufacturing and storage cannot be done overnight, but one would think the government would want to hasten their adoption.