Energy & Environment

EPA finalizes rule easing chemical plant safety regulations

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Chemical plants will be less burdened by safety regulations under a new rule finalized by the Trump administration Thursday.

Under the finalized tweaks to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) risk management program (RMP), chemical plants will be rid of what officials determine to be “unnecessary regulatory burdens,” aligning with the wishes of the chemical industry.

“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 associated with previous amendments to the RMP rule,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement Thursday.

The EPA first proposed the changes to its RMP, a regulation meant to reduce the risks of chemical plant disasters, in May 2018. 

The proposal to tweak the rule aligns with the wishes of the chemical industry, which argued that the previous January 2017 regulatory changes by the Obama administration were too expensive and unnecessarily burdensome. Obama beefed up the RMP regulations in the wake of the 2013 fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, which killed 15 people.

“In fact, accident rates in states that had adopted burdensome elements in the RMP Amendments rule show less decline in accident rates than RMP facilities nationwide under the original rule,” EPA’s press release read. “Thus, there was little data supporting the claimed benefits of the RMP Amendments.”

The plan, also known as the chemical disaster rule, is part of a suite of disaster prevention measures developed by EPA. The Clean Air Act mandates that facilities storing specific chemicals must adhere to the RMP. The first plan was developed in 1996, and nearly 12,500 facilities across the country are regulated under the RMP.

Thursday’s proposal would eliminate or ease some major pieces of the rule, including requirements that plant owners consider safer alternatives to various technologies, get third-party audits to check for compliance with accident prevention rules, conduct “root cause” analyses after incidents and disclose certain information to the community about operations.

Other major components of the rule, including provisions on coordination with local emergency services and exercises for emergency situations, now have delayed implementation dates.

The EPA argued that those changes, sought by industry groups and companies, would answer security concerns, reduce unnecessary costs and better align the standards with worker safety rules.

“The rule: reduces unnecessary and ineffective regulatory burdens on facilities and emergency responders (many of whom in rural areas are volunteers); harmonizes rather than conflicts with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Process Safety Management standard; and saves Americans roughly $88 million a year,” EPA said in its press release.

The $88 million estimated savings would come mostly from removing the requirement to consider safer alternatives, with other savings coming from eliminating audits and root-cause investigations.

EPA’s finalized rule Thursday comes two years after the agency sought to suspend the rule, but lost to a federal judge who in March 2018 ultimately reinstated it.  

The American Petroleum Institute welcomed the reiteration of the rule.

“The oil and gas industry’s top priority is ensuring the safety and security of employees, local communities and the environment,” Ron Chittim, API’s refining, downstream and industry operations manager, said in a statement.

“We welcome the EPA’s efforts to adhere to the statutory scope of the Clean Air Act and issue performance-based RMP regulations that provide both regulatory consistency and appropriately balance transparency with national security and public safety.”

Supporters of a more stringent rule argue that millions of Americans live near hazardous chemical facilities, and low-income communities are the most at risk to chemical disaster explosions and spills.

“There is no excuse for exposing families and children to preventable chemical disasters,” said Earthjustice Attorney Emma Cheuse in a statement. “We will continue working with people in the most affected communities to defend public safety and to oppose Trump’s dangerous rollback of the Chemical Disaster Rule.”

The agency said the new rule puts EPA’s focus on high-risk chemical facilities, pointing out that from 2007-2016, about 90 percent of RMP facilities had no reported accidents. 

EPA hailed Thursday’s finalized rule as its 48th deregulatory action since Trump took office, estimating that in total they’ve saved the public more than $5 billion in regulatory costs.

Tags Andrew Wheeler chemical plant chemical rule EPA spill West Texas

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