As Florence threatens chemical plants, Trump administration moves to weaken protections

As Florence threatens chemical plants, Trump administration moves to weaken protections
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Since it made landfall, Florence continues to wreak havoc: the storm was expected to drop 18 trillion gallons of rain over the course of a week — enough to fill the Chesapeake Bay. That could mean flooding at more than 1,000 sites in the storm’s path where toxic chemicals are used or stored. If those facilities are damaged, they could release chemicals that threaten public health and the environment. Why, then, is the Trump administration’s EPA seeking to weaken a regulation aimed at preventing exactly this kind of disaster?

The danger is not just hypothetical. Last year, flooding from Hurricane Harvey caused a power outage that triggered fires at an Arkema chemical manufacturing plant in Crosby, Texas. Twenty-one emergency responders required medical attention and 200 people were evacuated from their homes for a week. This disaster and others like it could have been prevented by stronger safety rules that protect emergency responders, plant workers and residents who live in the shadow of industrial facilities across the country.

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The Arkema fires offer a cautionary tale for the people impacted by Florence. While the plant’s management had a hurricane preparedness plan, it was not ready for the amount of rain that fell during Harvey — and accompanied Florence. The plant took on six feet of flooding, knocking out the refrigeration needed to keep the chemicals cool and stable. As temperatures increased in the trailers that housed flammable organic peroxides, three spontaneously ignited. More than 23,000 pounds of contaminants were carried by floodwaters into nearby homes. 

It’s not just hurricane-prone coastal areas at risk: Across the country, more than 2,500 toxic chemical sites are located in areas at high risk of flooding. As the changing climate makes floods more likely, those risks will only grow. That’s why the U.S. Chemical Safety Board — an independent federal investigator — has urged companies, emergency planners, and regulators to reassess the chemical industry’s preparedness for hurricanes and floods.

Despite these risks, Trump’s EPA is currently working to gut the Risk Management Program Rule, which requires chemical companies and wastewater treatment plants to be ready for such disasters.

The rule, adopted in January 2017, is based on sound science, audits of existing risk-management plans and investigations of previous accidents by numerous government agencies. It contains provisions to improve emergency response preparedness and coordination, and to ensure that local responders and residents have access to information about hazardous substances at nearby facilities. And — because companies like Arkema have a poor record of addressing safety issues —the rule requires inspections by objective third parties rather than by the companies themselves. 

The rule has already had a positive impact: A majority of the 12,500 chemical, oil and gas and wastewater treatment facilities covered by this regulation are already on a path to complying with final rule requirements. If Trump’s EPA succeeds in eviscerating the rule, that forward momentum will be lost.

In the days to come, the survivors of Hurricane Florence will have plenty to worry about as they survey the damage and begin to rebuild. Let’s take chemical disasters off their list of concerns. The Risk Management Program Rule should be left in place for the protection of us all.

Brendan Doyle is a former EPA policy analyst and senior policy advisor (1985-2017). He is a member of the Environmental Protection Network, a volunteer group of EPA alumni working to preserve the nation’s bipartisan progress toward clean air, water, land and climate protections.