US rolls back Chemical Disaster Rule

Article by Amanda Doyle

THE US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rescinded most of the Chemical Disaster Rule – which was designed to improve safety at chemical facilities – saying that it was an unnecessary regulatory burden.

The Chemical Disaster Rule, an amendment to the Risk Management Program (RMP), was created in response to the explosion at a fertiliser plant in West, Texas, in 2013. The explosion killed 15 people, including 12 first responders, and injured more than 260 people. The Obama-era rule was designed to ensure that any facilities dealing with hazardous chemicals would be required to disclose potential risks to local emergency responders. The rule also required facilities to have third-party audits, incident investigation analyses, and to assess possibilities of safer technologies. It was finalised on 13 January 2017, but was delayed under the Trump administration until a federal appeals court ordered the EPA to implement the rule in August 2018. It finally came into effect in December 2018, after an attempt to enforce the rule immediately was blocked. In the time of the delay, 73 incidents occurred.

The EPA, under the Trump administration, proposed changes to the rule in May 2018 which were finalised on 21 November 2019.

Under the revised rule, companies will not have to assess the possibilities of using safer technologies. Companies will not be required to perform third-party audits or a root-cause analysis after an incident. The hazard review team will not have to include findings of incident investigations. The rule rescinds the requirement to investigate a catastrophic release if the incident also results in the affected process being decommissioned or destroyed. It also rescinds employee training requirements for supervisors responsible for process operations. The operator of the plant will no longer be required to keep process safety information up-to-date.

Information about what types of chemicals are used at the facilities will no longer have to be made public, which the EPA said was a security risk.

The rule is retaining the 2017 amendment which says that the investigation team should have at least one person knowledgeable in the process. It is also retaining the requirement for facilities to provide local first responders with their emergency response plans.

The EPA said in a statement that the revised rule will “remove burdensome, costly, unnecessary amendments while maintaining appropriate protections and ensuring first responders have access to all of the necessary safety information.”

Andrew Wheeler, EPA Administrator said: “Accident prevention is a top priority of the EPA and this rule promotes improved coordination between chemical facilities and emergency responders, reduces unnecessary regulatory burdens, and addresses security risks associated with previous amendments to the RMP rule.”

Mike Walls, Vice President of Regulatory and Technical Affairs at the American Chemistry Council, said: “EPA’s changes to RMP will provide a strong regulatory framework for our industry to continue our work to safeguard chemical facilities and to work with our state and local partners to plan for a potential emergency.”

Cost savings

The EPA said that the revised rule would save around US$88m/y. This comes from the repeal of the safer technology and alternative analysis provision (savings of US$70m/y), third-party audits (US$9.8m/y), rule familiarisation (US$3.7m/y), information availability (US$3.1m/y), and root-cause incident investigation (US$1.8m/y). According to the Insurance Council of Texas, the total cost of the damage in West was estimated to be around US$100m.

A letter sent to Wheeler on 15 November from nearly 40 House Democrats urged him to withdraw the reconsideration rule. “Efforts to roll back these commonsense measures are being orchestrated on behalf of industry petitioners, which runs directly counter to the EPA’s stated mission of protecting human health. The EPA must stand up for workers, first responders, and fence-line communities by withdrawing this potentially life-threatening Rule.”

Elena Craft, Senior Director of Climate and Health at the Environmental Defense Fund, told the Washington Post: “We need more-detailed emergency plans, increased transparency and safer technology. This action moves in the wrong direction when it’s clear that the cost of chemical disasters is far greater than keeping communities safe.”

Numerous incidents

According to an EPA document from March 2017 in favour of the Chemical Disaster Rule, there were 1,517 reported accidents over a ten-year period for RMP-regulated facilities, and 473 of these had offsite impacts. The accidents caused 58 deaths, injured 17,099 people, and led to the evacuation or shelter-in-place of 500,000 people.

A Houston Chronicle investigation from 2015 found that there is a major chemical incident in the greater Houston area every six weeks. There are more than 2,500 chemical facilities in the area. There have been at least four chemical fires in the area so far this year, including a fire at the Deer Park facility, which took three days to be extinguished. According to the Houston Chronicle, the emergency personnel didn’t have information on which chemical was burning for more than an hour.

Ken Paxton, Texas Attorney General, said: “These revisions to the Obama-administrations’ last-minute rule will make Texans safer, ease the burden on state and local governments, and restore some common sense to the regulatory process.”

Juan Parras, Executive Director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Service, said: “This rollback is costing vulnerable communities in irreversible damage to our children. The Chemical Disaster Rule is meant to save lives. The lives of our first responders, workers and communities. Our lives don’t matter to this administration.”

Trish Kerin, Director of IChemE’s Safety Centre, said: “This is a very disappointing development that will increase the risk faced by not only the community, but also workers and emergency responders. Sadly, we have already learnt this lesson many times, including with the West Texas Fertiliser plant that killed 15 people, mostly the emergency responders, that saw these rules created. A fundamental part of good management of a hazardous facility is to understand your risks, and take steps to adequately manage them. By removing these requirements it leaves it open for the same incidents to continue to happen unchecked, resulting in an increased burden on workers, responders and the community, not to mention the business interruption and economic costs.”

Kristen Kulinowski, the Chemical Safety Board’s Interim Executive Authority, told the Houston Chronicle: “The CSB has used its case history of actual examples of incidents that occurred where lives were lost, people were injured or extensive property damage happened to back up our recommendations. We stand by those recommendations. We respectfully disagree with the EPA’s findings.”

Article by Amanda Doyle

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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