Lawsuit to Require Chemical Accident Emission Reports
Hurricane Harvey Chemical Explosions Spotlight Neglected Clean Air Act Mandate
Washington, DC — Communities need to know what chemicals are released by industrial accidents in their midst, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and community groups. The federal suit would mandate disclosure of air pollutants accidentally emitted by any industry within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), the agency charged with investigating chemical fires, explosions, leaks, and other accidents.
In 1990, the Clean Air Act Amendments mandated that the CSB “establish by regulation requirements binding on persons for reporting accidental releases into the ambient air.” During the subsequent nearly three decades, however, CSB has adopted no such rule. In the lawsuit filed today in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, PEER joined by community and public health organizations, including the Houston Air Alliance, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, are seeking a court order forcing CSB to require industrial accidental release reporting.
The need for this regulation was underlined most recently this summer when the Arkema chemical plant in Houston experienced chemical fires and explosions as a result of flooding from Hurricane Harvey. First responders to the stricken plant claimed that no one was aware of the dangerous properties of chemicals released. As a result of exposure, first responders and residents experienced adverse reactions and were rushed to nearby hospitals, according to a lawsuit for damages they have filed.
This is only one of more than 1,000 such industrial chemical accidents estimated to occur each year. Many release noxious fumes into their surrounding environs. Absent mandatory reporting, CSB currently tracks these events mainly through media accounts.
“A news clipping service is not an adequate safeguard for the health of communities, workers, and first responders,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Adam Carlesco. “American communities are forced into a game of Russian roulette, never knowing when an explosive round will go off – or what it contains.”
In 2009, CSB took a tentative step to adopt such a requirement, placing an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register. The notice – approved unanimously by the four CSB board members at the time, all appointed by President George W. Bush – stated that “the CSB recognizes that a reporting regulation is clearly required by the statute.” At that time, CSB argued that such a reporting requirement would also improve its ability to target its resources, launch timely investigations and preserve key evidence, and track trends and patterns in chemical incidents in order to better prevent future accidents. That proposed regulation was supported by community and public health groups but opposed by industry. CSB took no further action to promulgate it even though this key rule one was of the Board’s “five enumerated duties” according to the agency’s legislative history.
“America’s sole industrial safety monitor is currently flying blind and placing the health of the public at risk,” added Carlesco. “Congress has clearly required, and the CSB has acknowledged, that a rule must be promulgated to inform the public as to what chemicals industries have spewed into the atmosphere following an accident. Our lawsuit would finally implement this unambiguous yet long-neglected mandate.”