Delay in EPA’s Chemical Storage Rule Overlooks Inadequate Chemical Management

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new Administrator Scott Pruitt is supporting an industry request to delay and further review the amended chemical safety regulation. This regulation came about in response to the 2013 West, Texas chemical-related explosion and imposes stricter requirements for industry-prepared risk management plans. The amendment, called the Chemical Storage rule, zeroes in on accidental release prevention requirements by specifically focusing on safe chemical storage.

Regulations already exist to reduce chemical management risk, but these haven’t prevented lack of safety procedures, safety plans or accidents. When these occur, it is not necessarily the business that suffers but everyone else. For instance, the West, Texas explosion caused by poorly stored ammonium nitrate may have destroyed the plant and put the fertilizer company out of business, but it had a deeper impact on the surrounding community because it not only resulted in the deaths of 15 workers, but also damaged buildings for miles around. Greater oversight would have unearthed and corrected the problem and reduced risk.

The delay in implementing the Chemical Storage rule was pushed by chemical industry lobbyists who complained that the rule could make it easier for terrorists and other criminals to target refineries, chemical plants and other facilities by requiring companies to make public the types and quantities of chemicals stored on site. This is nonsense. Such information is already required by chemical management rules, including the Department of Homeland Security’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standard (CFATS), 6 CFR Part 27, which provides just such oversight already but only if the chemical exceeds threshold quantities. If those quantities aren’t reported – which is often the case – then either CFATS should be strengthened or the Chemical Storage rule should be implemented.

Frankly, businesses do not provide enough information now about chemicals on site. Many of these chemical substances are not stored correctly or kept in areas where they should not. Take, for instance, the 2014 chemical spill of crude 4-methylcyclohexamenthanol (MCHM) that was released into the Elk River in West Virginia upstream of the principal water intake and treatment plant for the region. Oops. Not only was the MCHM stored in an aging compromised container (bad), it was stored in an inappropriate location (very bad). It would have cost Freedom Industries, the company that stored the MCGM, money to either replace the storage container or move the substance to a different location. That’s what the lobbyists are really objecting to, that poor chemical management will be revealed and that businesses will need to improve their chemical management activities. Which will cost money to implement. Money that’s not been budgeted and which will cut into profits.

Hazardous chemical incidents occur frequently. More than 1,500 chemical releases or explosions were reported from 2004 to 2013, causing 58 deaths and more than 17,000 injuries, according to the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, an advocacy group. That’s an accident rate of almost 14 a month or every other day. How can this possibly be acceptable?

The public is the one who pays after an incident, not the perpetrator. Right now businesses are already required to submit reports concerning the types and quantities of chemicals stored on site. Many different regulations already require this, but it is difficult to ensure compliance when there is little oversight. For instance, Fire Code regulations require that this information be provided annually in order for first responders to accurately respond to any incidents. The proposed Chemical Storage rule simply tightens the safety requirements. Any claims that it impedes business is a smokescreen for non-compliance. All such facilities already have security measures in place to prevent unauthorized access. Delaying the EPA Chemical Storage rule would not divert resources from existing safety programs if those programs aren’t in fact ensuring safety in the first place.

Posted by Helen Gillespie

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