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Boosting Safety At Chemical Facilities

EPA weighs new approaches to process safety management

by Glenn Hess
February 23, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 8

Deadly Risks
Deadly Risks EPA is considering new steps to prevent catastrophic chemical facility accidents, such as the massive explosion in West, Texas in April 2013.
Credit: Adrees Latif/Reuters/Corbis
EPA is considering new steps to prevent catastrophic chemical facility accidents, such as the massive explosion in West, Texas, in April 2013.

The chemical industry and a coalition of environmental, labor, and other activist organizations are clashing over whether stricter regulations are needed to enhance safety at the nation’s industrial facilities.

At issue is an effort by the Environmental Protection Agency to update its Risk Management Plan (RMP) regulations. The two-decade-old RMP is an accident prevention program under the Clean Air Act for high-risk chemical facilities.

The agency’s action comes in response to an executive order President Barack Obama issued in August 2013 after a string of chemical disasters, notably the tragic explosion earlier that year at a fertilizer storage and distribution facility in West, Texas. That incident killed 15 people and injured more than 200. Since Obama issued the order, a multiagency group has explored ways to improve chemical facility safety standards.

Options Under Agency Review

The Environmental Protection Agency is considering a variety of potential changes to its Risk Management Plan program, which seeks to prevent accidental releases of chemicals that pose a risk to public health or safety.

EPA has identified areas of particular interest, including the following:
◾ Adding toxic, flammable, explosive, or reactive substances to its list of compounds to be regulated.
◾ Removing substances from the program.
◾ Decreasing or increasing the so-called threshold quantities that qualify certain chemicals for regulation under the program.
◾ Adding requirements such as leak detection and repair programs.
◾ Requiring consideration and use, if feasible, of inherently safer technologies.

To that end, EPA is contemplating the broadest regulatory changes within the federal government. These include proposals to expand the list of chemicals covered by the RMP program and possibly requiring facilities to conduct safer technology and alternatives analyses.

Existing RMP rules require facilities that make, use, or store quantities of extremely hazardous chemicals above specified thresholds to devise plans for preventing or minimizing the consequences of accidental releases. One goal of RMP, according to EPA, is to help “local fire, police, and emergency response personnel prepare for and respond to chemical emergencies.”

Now, the agency is reviewing the 100,874 public comments it received in response to a request last July for input about possible changes to the RMP regulations.

EPA sought “suggestions and comments to help us improve the risk management program, and in turn improve the safety and security of chemical facilities,” says Mathy Stanislaus, EPA’s assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response.

A request for information is a preliminary step designed to collect data and elicit the public’s views on what, if any, regulatory action the agency should take. Stanislaus says EPA is on track to propose revisions to the RMP program later this year and intends to finalize the changes in 2016.

Industry groups insist, however, that existing RMP regulations have been effective in preventing and mitigating catastrophic releases when properly implemented and do not need broad-stroke modification. “EPA has not convincingly demonstrated that anything is wrong with the current RMP regulations,” the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates (SOCMA), a trade association for specialty chemical makers, says in its comments.

“EPA has not provided any evidence that current systems, procedures, and reporting under the regulations are unreliable or are not adequate,” the group argues.

The accident at the fertilizer facility in Texas “may illustrate failings” in other federal regulations that govern hazardous chemicals, “but it does not indicate any shortcomings with the RMP program,” SOCMA contends.

On the other hand, activists argue that the RMP program should be strengthened. For instance, the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, which represents 156 labor unions and environmental, health, and community organizations, wants EPA to expand the list of regulated substances to include ammonium nitrate, the compound that exploded at the Texas fertilizer facility, as well as other chemicals with the potential for causing disasters.

The Center for Effective Government, a watchdog group, says the list of chemicals currently covered by the RMP rules—77 toxic and 63 flammable substances—is far too limited. Chemicals not covered include flammable compounds such as methanol, toluene, xylene, acetone, and butanone, as well as toxics such as phenol, styrene, sulfuric acid, calcium hypochlorite, and hydrofluorosilicic acid, the group notes in its comments.

The center suggests that, in addition to flammable and toxic chemicals, the regulations should also apply to explosive, reactive, and other categories of chemicals that have a significant chance of causing a catastrophic accident.

But chemical industry associations say that any additions to the list of RMP chemicals ought to be justified by scientific analyses and technical evaluations. For example, the Vinyl Institute says that with the exception of ammonium nitrate, there is no evidence that “a sufficient number of episodes or situations have occurred with respect to a particular chemical or type of chemical” to support expanding the list of regulated substances.

Activists also maintain that EPA should require all chemical facilities to conduct and submit an assessment to determine the availability of so-called inherently safer technology, such as replacing highly toxic chemicals with less hazardous alternative substances and using safer processes.

Furthermore, the agency should require all 12,700 facilities covered by the RMP rules to use safer chemicals and processes wherever feasible, the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters says. “New requirements to implement inherently safer alternatives are necessary to achieve long-overdue hazard reduction that has not been achieved by voluntary measures,” the coalition argues.

In its information request, EPA indicated that it will consider a requirement for safer technology. The agency said it first plans to issue documents detailing concepts, principles, and examples of inherently safer technologies. Then after considering feedback from stakeholders, EPA will decide whether to propose a new rule requiring companies to conduct and document analysis of safer alternatives and, possibly, to adopt those alternatives.

But the chemical industry has long opposed any attempt by the government to require the assessment or use of inherently safer technologies. “Inherently safer approaches have been and will continue to be considered by facilities as a matter of course,” says the American Chemistry Council (ACC). But the trade association, which represents the nation’s largest chemical manufacturers, contends that mandatory consideration or adoption of safer alternatives would be counterproductive.

Risk-reduction decisions are based on a variety of factors specific to the process, facility, and hazard under review, and must be technically and economically feasible while not shifting risk to other points along the supply chain, ACC says.

“The facility operator is in the best position to have a comprehensive picture of what may or may not work and how the facility environment will be impacted by process changes. Companies must be allowed to continue to use all risk management tools and options at their disposal,” ACC argues.

“No single agency can fully appreciate the entirety of operational issues across industry sectors, and therefore no single agency should attempt to mandate a particular use of ‘safe alternatives,’ ” the industry group adds.

To promote the use of safer alternatives and practices, ACC suggests that EPA should support industry safety and security programs and provide guidance to help companies comply with existing regulations rather than impose new ­requirements.

“These actions would focus on reaching facilities with potential risks that currently may operate without good knowledge of the existing regulatory requirements and structure,” the group says.

ACC and other industry associations maintain that increased attention and resources should be given to outreach, education, and training to ensure that “outlier” chemical sites, such as the obscure fertilizer depot in Texas, are fully aware of their regulatory obligations.

The RMP program has been “impressively effective in preventing chemical incidents for those facilities in compliance,” says the National Association of Chemical Distributors. “Catastrophic incidents have occurred at facilities that were in violation of the program. Developing additional regulations fails to address the problem of outlier operations,” the trade group says.  


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