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Still No Safety Rules Two Years After Executive Order

by Guest Blogger

July 8, 2015

In April 2013, an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas killed 15 people and decimated a community. This tragedy prompted President Obama to issue an Executive Order (EO) on August 1, 2013 requiring new chemical plant safety regulations. But as we approach the second anniversary of President Obama’s EO, communities are left wondering if the proposed rules will be on time and if they will include requirements for inherently safer technology (IST).

Greenpeace simulated a terrorist attack on a chlorine rail car in front of the U.S. Capitol to protest inaction by Congress and the Bush Administration. In the background, Greenpeace rolled out a 40-by-12 foot replica of a ninety-ton rail car with simulated steam and a recorded hissing sound. The activists wore T-shirts reading "Reroute and Phase-Out Chemicals of Mass Destruction".

Reinhard/Greenpeace

Links to blog posts in this series: Part 2

In April 2013, an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas killed 15 people and decimated a community. This tragedy prompted President Obama to issue an Executive Order (EO) on August 1, 2013 requiring new chemical plant safety regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has pledged to issue proposed rules in September to comply with the EO. But as we approach the second anniversary of President Obama’s EO, communities are left wondering if the proposed rules will be on time and if they will include requirements for inherently safer technology (IST).

Decades of Knowledge

The dangers of accidents at chemical plants have been well understood for decades. The 1984 Bhopal disaster at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in India that killed thousands drove these hazards into international prominence and prompted legislative responses in the United States.

In 1990, the Clean Air Act (CAA) was amended to add language focused on preventing accidental chemical releases, a change commonly referred to as the Bhopal Amendment [Clean Air Act sections 112(r) and 301(a)(1)]. Executive agencies responded to the amendment with new programs and standards including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Process Safety Management (PSM) standard and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Risk Management Program (RMP).

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) in 2007 as a temporary measure to address chemical plant security, an area neglected by the PSM and RMP regulations. Despite its intention as a placeholder policy, industry-friendly CFATS was made permanent in 2014.

But CFATS exempts thousands of facilities, including all drinking water and wastewater treatment plants and port facilities—some of the nation’s highest risk chemical facilities. Further, the standards explicitly prohibit the DHS from requiring facilities to adopt inherently safer technologies (IST), even while President Obama declared, “IST is an integral part of chemical plant security” when he was a Senator in 2006.

Need for New Requirements

The inadequate measures currently in place leave over 110 million Americans at risk of a catastrophic incident at chemical plants all around the country. Fortunately, there are cost-effective solutions to improve safety and security at chemical facilities.

Converting to safer processes and implementing IST is the simplest and most effective way to reduce hazards. For example, water treatment facilities can replace highly toxic chlorine gas with liquid chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite) or ultraviolet light. Oil refineries can switch from hydrofluoric acid to solid acid catalysts or ionic liquid alkylation.

These conversions to safer alternatives can cost less than $100,000 and save facilities money in the long-term by reducing the costs of physical site security, regulatory reporting, and insurance liability. The conversion process also creates jobs. Further, safer processes increase efficiency, production, and product quality while protecting workers and communities.

The EPA’s proposed rules expected in September must include requirements for facilities to implement IST when feasible. Such a requirement embraces the precautionary principle that is crucial to preventing disasters rather than focusing solely on emergency response.

Take action today and tell President Obama to use his authority to make sure the EPA issues strong IST requirements right away.

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