Chemical disasters: EPA plan would keep us in the dark
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Last month's chemical leak in Baytown, Texas is a stark reminder that many of us live perilously close to extremely hazardous chemical facilities. On Sunday, July 17, an unknown amount of explosive gas was released from a refinery pipeline prompting authorities to evacuate private homes and issue a 'shelter-in-place' alert for the entire neighborhood. 

Chemical releases such as Baytown's happen with startling frequency and have the potential to impact thousands. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified 466 chemical facilities across the nation that each put 100,000 or more people at risk of a poison gas disaster. Since the West, Texas, disaster just a little over 3 years ago, there have been more than 430 chemical incidents resulting in 82 deaths.  

While millions of Americans live or work in areas threatened by chemical disasters, not every community shares this risk equally. A recent demographic analysis by the Environmental Justice Health Alliance found that the percentage of Black people living closest to America’s most dangerous facilities is 75% greater than the U.S. as a whole, and the percentage of Latinos is 60% greater. The poverty rate closest to these dangerous facilities is 50% higher. 

This terrifying incident in Baytown happened as EPA is crafting rules that are supposed to improve chemical facility safety. Unfortunately, EPA’s proposed Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule fails to include basic prevention measures and would block at-risk communities like Baytown from seeing the essential information they need to protect their families. 

If you and your family lived in constant threat of this sort of disaster, don’t you think you should be allowed to know if the facility risking your lives could be using a safer chemical or process instead?

This is just common sense to the many community, business, health, and national security leaders who are supporting simple requirements for hazardous chemical facilities to look for safer alternatives (through a Safer Technology and Alternatives Analysis, or STAA) and then share these options with people living or working in their chemical disaster “vulnerability” zone.

Unfortunately, the EPA doesn’t seem to agree. It has proposed changes to its chemical disaster prevention rules (the Risk Management Plan, or RMP) that specifically exclude sharing any information from these studies with endangered communities.

EPA’s failure to ensure that at-risk communities get the information they need to participate in their own protection is surprising, especially as EPA Administrator Gina McCarthyGina McCarthyWhite House details environmental benefits plan for disadvantaged communities Tom Brady to Biden: '40 percent of the people still don't think we won' Clean electricity standard should be a no brainer amid extreme climate impacts MORE has repeatedly expressed her commitment to openness and transparency during her leadership of the agency.

Earlier this month, the Administrator’s blog claims that “EPA prioritizes transparency, openness, and participation in all that we do — not because we have to, because it works.” ( And yet, the Agency’s proposed rule would leave communities in the dark.

Unless the proposed RMP rule is amended, nearby residents, businesses, hospitals, schools, and everyone else at risk of a chemical disaster will never know if these facilities could be using safer chemicals or processes.

Fortunately, there is still time for EPA to make a few modest changes to the proposed RMP rule that can transform it into something that can prevent disasters, protect communities, and make the Administrator’s stated commitment to transparency a reality.

If EPA expects its RMP proposal to pass the straight face test as a rule that promotes transparency by making information on hazards and solutions available to people at risk, it must amend its proposal to:

  • Require that all RMP facilities (not just a small subset) determine if safer methods or chemicals are available;

  • Ensure that at least critical summary information from these assessments is directly available to at-risk communities;

  • Provide opportunities for community and worker involvement in all prevention and response planning and decision making processes.

I hope that the Administrator will live up to her commitment to transparency and participation by directing her staff to make these modest—but essential—changes to the proposed RMP rule.

Juan Parras is the Director of t.e.j.a.s., and has been organizing environmental justice communities since 1994. Juan was an original member of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), and has served on the boards of the Gulf Restoration Network, National Childhood Lead Prevention Program, and the Center for Health and Environmental Justice (CHEJ). He is currently an environmental justice Ambassador for the Gulf of Mexico Alliance. Juan received the CEC Synergy Award in 2008 and the Sealy Center for Environmental Health & Medicine HERO Award in 2009.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.