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Scott Pruitt accused of doing ‘bidding of powerful lobbyists’ with EPA chemical safety rollback

Obama EPA issued Chemical Disaster Rule in response to deadline fertilizer explosion in Texas.

Search and rescue workers comb through what remains of a 50-unit apartment building the day after an explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. destroyed the building April 18, 2013 in West, Texas. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Search and rescue workers comb through what remains of a 50-unit apartment building the day after an explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. destroyed the building April 18, 2013 in West, Texas. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to roll back an Obama-era rule meant to reduce the risks of chemical disasters at more than 10,000 facilities across the nation. The Chemical Disaster Rule, issued a week before President Trump took office, was the EPA’s central response to the 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, which killed 15 people.

The Obama-era rule amended the EPA’s outdated risk management program in response to data showing thousands of fires, explosions, and other chemical releases that the existing framework had failed to prevent. But on Thursday, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt introduced a proposal to rescind the measures, saying it would save the industry tens of millions of dollars a year.

“The rule proposes to reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens, address the concerns of stakeholders and emergency responders on the ground, and save Americans roughly $88 million a year,” Pruitt said in a statement.

In the Thursday news release announcing the planned rollback of the safety regulations, the EPA included statements from chemical industry officials thanking Pruitt for saving them from the cost of updating their operations.

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The EPA’s Chemical Disaster Rule, as proposed by the Obama administration “would have imposed significant new costs on industry without identifying or quantifying the safety benefits to be achieved through new requirements,” National Association of Chemical Distributors President Eric Byer said in a statement.

On May 17, 2018, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt Scott Pruitt signed the Risk Management Program Reconsideration proposed rule at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Trade unions and public safety advocates condemned Pruitt's effort to weaken chemical plant safety rules. CREDIT: EPA
On May 17, 2018, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt Scott Pruitt signed the Risk Management Program Reconsideration proposed rule at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Trade unions and public safety advocates condemned Pruitt's effort to weaken chemical plant safety rules. CREDIT: EPA

There are about 150 major industrial chemical accidents each year in the United States, according to the BlueGreen Alliance, a group composed of labor unions and environmental organizations. At least one-in-three schoolchildren attend a school in the vulnerability zone of a hazardous facility.

On August 1, 2013, President Obama issued executive order, Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security, following several catastrophic chemical facility incidents, including the disaster in West, Texas. The focus of the executive order was to reduce risks associated with hazardous chemicals to owners and operators, workers, and communities by enhancing the safety and security of chemical facilities.

The Obama rule included requiring more analysis of safety technology, third-party audits, incident investigation analyses, and stricter emergency preparedness requirements for facilities such as petroleum refineries, large chemical manufacturers, wastewater treatment systems, chemical and petroleum terminals, and agricultural chemical distributors.

But the EPA received a petition from a coalition of chemical and energy industry groups, including the American Chemistry Council and American Petroleum Institute, to delay and reconsider the Obama-era amendments. Last year, Pruitt issued a delay of the rule in response to the industry requests.

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Pruitt’s proposed rule change would “reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens while maintaining consistency” with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s safety standards, the EPA said.

The decision to rollback the safety standards was condemned by trade unions and public safety advocates. The United Steelworkers accused the administrator of doing “the bidding of powerful industry lobbyists by rescinding important requirements to prevent and respond to catastrophic chemical incidents at industrial facilities.”

The EPA risk management program “is a crucial tool that the Obama administration rightly decided to modernize” after numerous incidents, the union said Thursday in a statement. The United Steelworkers pointed to the deadly explosion in West, Texas, and earlier incidents at United Steelworkers-represented facilities in Anacortes, Washington and Richmond, California.

The proposed rule will be available for public comment for 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register. A public hearing on the rule is scheduled for June 14 at EPA headquarters in Washington.

“Trump’s EPA revealed a shocking, but unfortunately not surprising, plan to delete ‘all accident prevention program provisions’ of the Chemical Disaster Rule that President Obama’s EPA issued based on robust evidence of harm to workers, first-responders, and fenceline communities,” Emma Cheuse, an attorney with Earthjustice, said Thursday in a statement.

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The people living and working near oil refineries and chemical manufacturers, who face repeated toxic releases and fires like the dozens of serious incidents documented in recent months, are disproportionately people of color and low-income people, Cheuse said.

Pruitt’s EPA wants to rescind amendments related to safer technology and alternatives analyses, third-party audits, incident investigations, and information availability. The agency is also proposing to modify amendments relating to local emergency coordination and emergency exercises, and to change the compliance dates for these provisions.

In response to Pruitt’s plans to weaken the rule, Environmental Working Group (EWG) President Ken Cook said EPA administrators are supposed to push for safeguards to protect workers and residents from deadly catastrophes. The EWG is a nonprofit group that works to protect human health and the environment.

“But this is Scott Pruitt,” Cook said Thursday in a statement. “There apparently is no favor he won’t do for the chemical industry. Repealing safety measures at industry’s behest is just all in a day’s work.”