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EPA issues long-delayed chemical plant safety rule

Risk management requirements revised

by Jeff Johnson
December 28, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 1

Credit: Mark Wingard/CSB
EPA’s safety regulation came in response to the 2013 fatal fire at a West, Texas, fertilizer warehouse.
Photo from the air shows leveled building in West, Texas, after the 2013 explosion and fire.
Credit: Mark Wingard/CSB
EPA’s safety regulation came in response to the 2013 fatal fire at a West, Texas, fertilizer warehouse.

The Environmental Protection Agency has updated a 25-year-old regulation intended to reduce chemical plant accidents and protect communities, workers, and emergency responders.

The revision to EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP) is part of a sweeping regulatory overhaul of federal industrial safety regulations ordered by President Barack Obama in 2013. Obama directed agencies to make changes in the wake of the deaths of 15 people, mostly emergency responders, in explosion of ammonium nitrate fertilizer at a fertilizer warehouse in West, Texas.

RMP provisions cover some 12,500 facilities that, according to EPA, reported 1,500 accidents over a recent 10-year period. These incidents involved nearly 60 deaths, 17,000 injuries, the evacuation of 500,000 people, and property damage of more than $2 billion.

Among changes, the new regulation calls for independent, third-party audits of companies after an accident or near-accident and consideration of inherently safer manufacturing approaches. However, the rule specifies that implementation of safer approaches may only occur when “practical.”

Much of the accident data would be kept from public view, but some would be generally available.

Scott Jensen, a spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, says, “We have some initial concerns regarding the rule’s auditing regime and safer [manufacturing] alternatives analysis requirements.”

The Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, an organization of 120 community and environmental organizations and labor unions, is disappointed the regulation does not require inherent safety technologies.

The rule faces an uncertain future. President-elect Donald J. Trump’s pick to head EPA, former Oklahoma Attorney General E. Scott Pruitt, has opposed the RMP overhaul.

This regulation is the only one to emerge from the Obama-ordered review. It does not cover ammonium nitrate, the chemical that exploded in West, Texas.



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