Obamas Timid Chemical Safety Legacy
EPA Plan Limited, Largely Voluntary and Leaves Largest Threats Unabated
Washington, DC — An Environmental Protection Agency proposal for preventing major industrial accidents is a step forward but only a very tiny one, according to public comments filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The EPA plan is exceedingly narrow in scope, relies on voluntary actions and brings no enforcement heft toward averting chemical plant disasters that imperil both workers and communities.
The proposal stemmed from President Obama’s Executive Order following the 2013 ammonium nitrate fertilizer explosion that killed 15, including two members of the public, and leveled much of the town of West, Texas. Yet, it does not cover fertilizer plants handling ammonium nitrate; the proposal also exempts utilities and water treatment facilities and most manufacturers that use covered hazardous substances from its safer technology requirements. In fact, the proposal does not cover the examples it cites to justify its provisions.
The plan’s requirements for petroleum refineries and chemical and paper plants are salutary but –
- The plan relies heavily on unfunded local voluntary committees for implementation;
- Industry analyses of inherently safer technology that prevent accidents are kept closeted and thus may remain academic exercises; and
- EPA has devoted pathetically little enforcement muscle to enforce even the current requirements.
“U.S. industrial safety will be left little improved by the faint imprint left in the Obama years,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that our aging industrial infrastructure increases the risk of chemical disaster with each passing year. “This very modest proposal is the first major change to EPA’s Risk Management Program in 20 years – and we may not be able to afford waiting another 20 years to make significantly greater progress in reducing industrial hazards that endanger the public.”
A key component is the first federal recognition of the potential for inherently safer technology and practices to avert chemical explosions and other disasters. Although the plan requires certain facilities to draw up safer alternatives, it does not require the facilities to actually adopt those improvements. By contrast, California is currently considering a requirement that all refineries implement recommendations from inherent safety analyses.
“EPA acknowledges that inherently safer technology is a good idea, but does not have the White House backing to require it,” added Ruch, arguing that, at the very least, EPA should focus on addressing the biggest public safety risks. “It is maddening but typical that EPA has collected worst-case scenario release data over the years but is unwilling to put these data to any practical use in reducing risks.”