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US Administration guts Chemical Disaster Rule adopted after fatal 2013 Texas fertiliser explosion

27 November 2019

On November 21, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it was removing many of the original measures proposed in an Obama-era regulation dubbed the Chemical Disaster Rule aimed at preventing disasters caused by dangerous chemical storage facilities.

Damage after 250 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded at West, Texas - CSB
Damage after 250 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded at West, Texas - CSB

The Chemical Disaster Rule was imposed by the Obama administration after a 2013 explosion at a fertiliser depot in West, Texas killed 15 people, including 12 first responders, and injured over 160 others.

The rule mandated that chemical companies take new measures to prevent similar accidents, including the use of safer technology and procedures, third-party audits in the event of a problem, determining the root-cause of any spill, and public access to information about the types of chemicals stored on their sites.

Under the new rule, companies will not have to do third-party audits, safer technology research or a root-cause analysis after an incident. They also will not have to provide the public access to information about what type of chemicals are stored in these facilities.

Among the reasons cited by the EPA for the rule reversal were potential security risks in disclosing chemical plant inventories and facility locations to the public, the economic cost for companies to follow the rules, and reducing “unnecessary regulations.”

“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” arising from past changes to risk management rules, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a written statement.

The agency estimate the changes would save “Americans roughly $88 million per year,” by rescinding all accident prevention program provisions.

The Houston area is home to more than 2,500 chemical facilities. A 2015 Houston Chronicle investigation found there was a major chemical incident in the greater Houston area every six weeks. So far in 2019 there have been at least four chemical fires in the Houston area, including one at a tank storage facility in Deer Park, where it took more than an hour for some emergency personnel to know what hazardous chemical was burning.

These changes to the rule had been pushed by the chemical industry and fiercely opposed by environmentalists, local community members, first responders and trade unions.

Since the West fire, there have been a number of high-profile industry-related incidents in the region, including the 2014 chemical leak at the DuPont La Porte plant where four workers died after being exposed to methyl mercaptan, a toxin. A US Chemical Safety Board investigation found the incident occurred due to a “flawed engineering design and a lack of proper safeguards.”

During the emergency response to the DuPont incident the company’s emergency vehicles broke down and local firefighters did not have enough oxygen for a sustained rescue effort. The company also could not identify what was leaking when asked by 911 operators.

In 2017, during Hurricane Harvey, the Arkema facility in Crosby lost control of its storage of organic peroxides, leading to explosions, fires and a release of toxic fumes. Afterwards, first responders sued, saying they were exposed to fumes that were hazardous to their health. The local administration, Harris County, also brought criminal charges against the company and several of its executives for the “reckless” release of toxic chemicals during the hurricane and for allegedly withholding vital information, putting first responders in harm's way. The company and executives denied the allegations.

More recently, in March 2019 a fire burned for three days at a petrochemical tank complex near Deer Park operated by Intercontinental Terminals Co. Elevated benzene readings around the plant forced shelter-in-place orders and school closures. Then a containment wall breached around the tank farm and sent foam and other volatile compounds into a drainage ditch that leads to the Houston Ship Channel, forcing the busy waterway’s shutdown.

Weeks later, an explosion at the KMCO plant in Crosby killed one worker and critically injured two others. Exxon Mobil also had plant fires in Baytown, in March and July.

Environmental advocates said these incidents underscored the need for more safety measures, not fewer.



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