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Trump administration to rescind most safety regulations proposed after fatal West explosion

22 May 2018

Five years after the fatal explosion of the West Fertilizer plant in Texas, which killed 15 and injured 260, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced proposed rules that will not include many of the Obama administration regulations the agency had proposed for chemical plants in the wake of the explosion.

West after the explosion - Image: CSB
West after the explosion - Image: CSB

These would have required information sharing with the public on chemical risks and accidents, the hiring of independent auditors to ensure companies conduct proper risk management planning, and the evaluation of safer technology and alternatives.

The new rules were set to take effect in June 2017, but they were held up by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt after he took office. He said on May 18 the revised rules would save taxpayers $88 million per year by reducing unnecessary regulatory burdens.

The savings would be made by scrapping the need to evaluate options for safer technology and procedures that would mitigate hazards, rescinding the requirement to conduct a root-cause analysis after a catastrophic chemical release or an incident that might have caused one, and abandoning the need to perform a third-party compliance audit after an accident at a plant or when conditions were discovered that could lead to an accidental release of chemicals.

Both the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates and the National Association of Chemical Distributors said they supported the EPA’s revised proposals.

Pruitt’s move to dismantle these regulations is part of a broader push to scrap Obama-era environmental rules, a strategy that has drawn intense criticism from environmental groups.

The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) had earlier recommended that ammonium nitrate, the chemical involved in the West explosion, be regulated under the EPA’s risk management program, but there has been no indication that this will take place.

A CSB report into the incident found that 19 other Texas facilities storing large amounts of ammonium nitrate fertiliser were located within half a mile of a school, hospital or nursing home, raising concerns that an incident with offsite consequences of this magnitude could happen again.

The report also identified the lack of knowledge about hazardous materials at the West plant amongst first responders and the public at large as an important contributory factor in the high number of deaths and injuries.

One change that has been made is a law introduced by the state of Texas ensuring local fire marshalls inspect all sites storing ammonium nitrate once a year. This will continue.

West Mayor Tommy Muska told local and national media that the scrapping of the proposed regulations was unwarranted and dangerous.

“With all due respect to Scott Pruitt, he’s never lost 15 firefighter friends,” Muska told the Austin American-Statesman. “I’m as pro-business as anyone, but some things are way, way, way more important than too much regulation, and that includes the safety of these chemical plants.”

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