EPA rolls back written regulations after fatal 2013 explosion in West, Texas

The Trump administration on Thursday rolled back a series of chemical safety regulations created in response to a 2013 explosion in West, Texas that left 15 people dead, more than 200 injured and flattened much of the farming community in the south. from Dallas.

Under the new rule, companies will not have to perform third-party audits or root cause analysis after an incident. Nor will they have to provide the public with access to information on the type of chemicals stored in these facilities.

Among the reasons cited by the Environmental Protection Agency for rule reversal were the potential safety risks associated with public disclosure of chemical plant inventories and facility locations, the economic cost to companies of tracking rules and reducing “unnecessary regulations”.

“Accident prevention is a top priority for the EPA and this rule promotes better coordination between chemical facilities and emergency responders, reduces unnecessary regulatory burdens and addresses safety risks” resulting from past changes to the rules. risk management, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a writing. declaration.

The agency estimates that the changes would save Americans about $ 88 million per year by canceling all provisions of the accident prevention program.

The Houston area is home to more than 2,500 chemical facilities. A 2015 Houston Chronicle investigation discovered that there is a major chemical incident in the greater Houston area every six weeks. So far this year, there have been at least four chemical fires in the Houston area, including one at a tank storage facility in Deer Park, where it took over an hour for staff to emergency to find out which hazardous chemical was burning.

Harris County and the state have filed several lawsuits against the companies for environmental violations, in addition to those filed by residents and workers who claim to have been affected by the incidents.

For Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the administration’s decision to overturn those regulations is cause for concern. “Families who live near petrochemical facilities never put their concern for their health and safety aside, and neither does their government,” she said in a written statement.

“The commissioners’ tribunal recently voted to make a historic investment in environmental monitoring and other resources that we need so that the county is better prepared in the event of another emergency,” said Hidalgo, a democrat. “We continue to work diligently at the local level to protect our communities, but meaningful change is difficult without strict regulation and oversight at all levels of government.”

The federal rule change had been pushed by industry and decried by coalitions comprising environmentalists, members of the gated community, first responders and unions.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA requires that facilities storing specific chemicals above certain quantities have risk management plans and develop programs to prevent and mitigate accidents that could release those chemicals into the environment. the environment.

The Obama administration had introduced rules designed to help prevent and mitigate chemical accidents by requiring more proactive incident prevention efforts, improvements in emergency response, and increased public transparency and availability of information. For example, each facility was required to conduct a study to determine whether it could use safer technology or use less hazardous chemicals to reduce the risk of damage in the event of a chemical incident. Companies were not required to make changes based on the study.

This effort was in part the result of the The West Fertilizer tragedy in 2013, when more than 80,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate caught fire at a distribution facility in West, Texas. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives concluded in 2016 that the fire was deliberately started.

Industry lobbyists were heavily involved in shaping the Obama administration’s rules, which took over three years to draft. The new rule was to come into force on March 14, 2017, with gradual compliance over several years.

But after Donald Trump became president, an industry coalition called on the EPA to reconsider the chemical disasters rule, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, in one of his first acts, suspended it.

The Trump administration argued it needed more time to consider industry objections, but the DC Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument in August 2018, saying the EPA must come up with new rules or changes to the existing rule, not just delay implementation indefinitely. In June 2018, as the case progressed through the courts, the EPA proposed the changes it finalized on Thursday.

Since the West Texas fire, there have been a number of high-profile industry-related incidents in the area, including the 2014 chemical leak at a La Porte factory where four workers died. after being exposed to methyl mercaptan, a toxin. A US Chemical Safety Board investigation found that the incident occurred due to “faulty engineering design and lack of proper warranties.”

A number of failures also occurred during the emergency response to the DuPont incident. The company’s emergency vehicles broke down. The city’s firefighters did not have enough oxygen for a sustained rescue effort. The company could not identify what was leaking when the 911 operators asked it.

In 2017, during Hurricane Harvey, the Arkema plant in Crosby lost control over its storage of organic peroxides, causing explosions, fires and the release of toxic fumes. Afterwards, first responders took legal action, claiming they had been exposed to fumes dangerous to their health. Harris County also recently brought criminal charges against the company and several of its executives for the “reckless” release of toxic chemicals during the hurricane and for allegedly withholding vital information, putting first responders at risk. The company and its executives have denied the allegations.

Residents of the Houston area were affected by several incidents this past spring.

In mid-March, a fire burned for three days at a petrochemical tank complex near Deer Park operated by Intercontinental Terminals Company., attracting national attention. High benzene values ​​around the plant have forced shelter-in-place orders and school closures. Then, a containment wall broke around the tank farm and sent foam and other volatiles into a drainage ditch that leads to the Houston Ship Channel, forcing the busy waterway to close.

A few weeks later, an explosion in KMCO the Crosby plant killed one worker and seriously injured two others. Exxon Mobil also had factory fires in Baytown in March and July.

Conservationists say the incidents underscore the need for heightened security measures, not less.

“This setback is costing vulnerable communities irreversible damage to our children,” said Juan Parras, executive director of Houston-based Texas Environmental Justice Defense Services.

“The rule of chemical disasters is about saving lives. The lives of our first responders, workers and communities. Our lives do not count for this administration. We, as a people, must stand up and say no and put pressure on every moment, ”he added.

The Obama-era rule was in effect during the recent incidents in the Houston area, but full compliance was not yet required, said Emma Cheuse, a lawyer for Earthjustice, who represented some of the groups that sued the administration for delay in its implementation. .

“These incidents show the need for full implementation and enforcement of the chemical disaster rule, rather than repealing preventive measures or weakening other safety measures. Trump’s EPA rescinds the safety rules before communities can fully benefit from the protections of that rule, ”Cheuse said.

“Given that the EPA is primarily a public health agency, it is unreasonable for the Trump administration to remove key protections for emergency responders and people living near facilities that handle potentially dangerous chemicals “, said Elena’s Crafts, Senior Director of Climate and Health at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We need more detailed emergency plans, more transparency and more secure technology. “

But industry groups and some Texas state officials have welcomed the change.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican who has frequently sued the Obama administration, said he was grateful to the EPA for making the necessary changes “to bring the risk management plan rule back into effect. compliance with public safety and a proper balance of power between state and federal government. authorities.”

The revisions, he added, “will make Texans safer, ease the burden on state and local governments, and restore some common sense to the regulatory process.”

Mike Walls, vice president of the American Chemistry Council, said the change will provide “a strong regulatory framework for our industry to continue our work protecting chemical facilities and to work with our state and local partners to plan for a possible emergency. “.

The US Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency that investigates the root causes of major chemical incidents, has lobbied to tighten regulations for the EPA’s risk management program, including more in-depth rules than those proposed by the Obama administration.

And the new rules announced Thursday “run counter to the changes we want in chemical safety,” said Kristen Kulinowski, the CSB’s interim executive authority.

“The CSB used its case history of real-life examples of incidents where lives were lost, people injured or significant property damage occurred to substantiate our recommendations,” Kulinowski said in an interview on Thursday. . “We maintain these recommendations. We respectfully disagree with the EPA’s findings.

Other longtime advocates of tighter petrochemical industry regulation were not surprised by the EPA’s pullback.

“It’s disappointing but not surprising,” said Ron White, an independent environmental health consultant who has worked for groups such as Coming Clean and the Union of Concerned Scientists. “This puts approximately 120 million people living near these facilities at increased risk, as these relatively modest improvements have been removed.”

And stricter regulations are in the industry’s best interest, said Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment for United Steelworkers.

“If there is one serious accident … and a few hundred people are killed off site,” Wright said, “the whole industry would be in very serious trouble.”

Jordan Blum contributed to this report.

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