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EPA proposes tightening US chemical plant safety standards

01 March 2016

On February 25, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled a plan to reform the nation’s chemical plant safety standards, with a proposal that would require companies to conduct annual safety drills, be subject to third-party audits and improve emergency response to accidents. Some companies will be asked to consider safer technologies or chemicals.

The changes are part of President Obama's executive order from 2013, issued in the wake of the fatal explosion at West in Texas, which charged federal agencies with preventing chemical disasters and improving emergency response when they happen.
US officials said that their proposal would not force chemical plants to actually adopt inherently safer technologies, but simply to analyse those technologies and evaluate the feasibility of implementing less hazardous approaches.
The EPA proposal also includes changes that the agency says would assist local emergency officials in planning for and responding to plant accidents, as well as improve public awareness of chemical hazards in their communities.
EPA assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus said in a blog post: “We want to build on the success of leaders in the chemical industry by enhancing their operations to prevent accidents, and we want to make sure that communities are fully prepared for a chemical plant accident, so that first responders, workers, and neighboring community members are protected.”
The EPA proposal is a draft rewrite of the agency’s Risk Management Plan rule that implemented chemical plant safety provisions of the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act.
In a press release, EPA said: “While numerous chemical plants are operated safely, in the last 10 years more than 1,500 accidents were reported” at facilities covered by the rule. “These accidents are responsible for causing nearly 60 deaths, some 17,000 people being injured or seeking medical treatment, almost 500,000 people being evacuated or sheltered-in-place, and costing more than $2 billion in property damages.”
In its proposal, the EPA included a long list of major plant incidents and quoted from various US Chemical Safety Board reports that detailed significant safety lapses that led to those incidents.
But these new standards, according to the Houston Chronicle, will not affect facilities such as the one that exploded in West where 15 were killed and 160 injured, only those that are required by the EPA to file risk management plans.
The West facility was a fertiliser storage depot rather than a chemical plant, and so was not required to file a plan. The updated rules also will not adjust how the EPA evaluates chemicals, so ammonium nitrate, the source of the explosion in West, is still not considered hazardous.
EPA noted that a coalition of citizen groups had petitioned EPA nearly four years ago, in July 2012, to require the adoption of inherently safer technologies where they are feasible. While saying that its proposal would require an analysis of safer alternatives, EPA said it was not requiring those to be adopted by companies.
 “The decision to implement such measures must consider the numerous factors related to processes, facilities and society at large. Improper implementation of a seemingly safer alternative may lead to undesired consequences,” the agency said.
“While EPA believes that sources should look for additional opportunities to increase safety, we believe that the facility owners or operators are in the best position to identify which changes are feasible to implement for their particular process,” EPA said. “This decision should be based on a careful analysis and take into account: the chemicals present and their associated hazards; the operations and process conditions involved; consequences to workers, nearby populations and the environment; and the types of equipment used that are specific to the facility’s process. The analysis may consider the potential to shift risk between populations, locations, environmental media (air, water land), etc.”
The RMP regulations will only require companies in three industries – paper, coal and petroleum and chemical manufacturing – to assess whether safer technologies and chemicals are feasible.
Stanislaus stressed that the agency went to great lengths to get feedback from a variety of sources over two and a half years before proposing these changes. It reached out to representatives from 25 states and business groups and considered thousands of public comments.
After a 60-day comment period, the EPA plans to expedite making the changes official, Stanislaus said.
Some industry groups expressed opposition to these changes. The American Chemistry Council, representing many of the chemical industry’s plant operators, said the proposed requirements would “create unnecessary and potentially detrimental complexity.”

But on the other side some groups say the proposals do not go far enough. Certain safety advocates have expressed dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s reaction to chemical plant safety issues, saying that the response to a series of major fires, explosions and leaks has been disappointing. A coalition of groups has said that the administration was stalling any significant plant safety actions until it was too late in Obama’s term to have proposals finalised.

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