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Industrial Safety

EPA issues sweeping chemical safety regulation

Risk Management Program rule has been in the works since 2013

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
March 4, 2024


Industrial facilities linining the Houston Ship Channel.
Credit: Shutterstock
The Risk Management Program puts special emphasis on 620 high-risk facilities, including ones along the Houston Ship Channel.

The US Environmental Protection Agency released its long-delayed Risk Management Program (RMP) final regulation March 1, calling it “EPA’s most protective safety provisions for chemical facilities in history.”

Development of this final version of the 30-year-old regulation generated nearly 60,000 public comments. The rule covers 11,740 facilities, including chemical plants, warehouses, and storage facilities. Some 131 million people live within 3 mi (4.8 km) of a covered facility, according to EPA officials who spoke at a briefing for reporters.

The impetus for the final regulation was a lengthy multiagency federal review of safety regulations after an ammonium nitrate fertilizer explosion at a Texas warehouse killed 15 people, mostly firefighters, in 2013. The review resulted in a regulation that was issued in the last days of the Barack Obama administration but rescinded and updated by the Donald J. Trump administration. That regulation faced a legal challenge and was never finalized.

Although the regulation is broad, it focuses on about 620 plants that the EPA identified as handling high levels of toxic chemicals and being in industrial sectors with high accident rates. It requires owners of the facilities to consider taking more stringent action to reduce the risk of toxic chemical releases.

All too often, people living on the company fence line were unaware of the risk from chemicals right in their neighborhood.
Janet McCabe, deputy administrator, US Environmental Protection Agency

The owners will be required to analyze alternatives—such as safer technologies or chemicals—that they could use to reduce risk. If they don’t introduce safer measures, they must provide a justification. Community leaders and labor unions have sought this provision for years, but the chemical industry has opposed it because of concerns about government and community interference in its business.

When announcing the regulation at the briefing, EPA deputy administrator Janet McCabe stressed the impact it will have on those living near covered facilities, particularly roughly 20 million Black or African American and 32 million Hispanic or Latino people, as well as 44 million people of all races and ethnicities making less than twice the poverty level. She pointed to the rule’s emphasis on transparency, noting that formerly, “all too often, people living on the company fence line were unaware of the risk from chemicals right in their neighborhood.”

Among other significant new provisions, the RMP regulation will give facility employees more safety training and opportunities to participate in decision-making about plant safety. Additionally, employees and their representatives will now have authority to anonymously report safety hazards.

After an accident, facility owners will be required to conduct a third-party safety compliance audit and root-cause investigation and analysis.

The regulation also allows community members and local emergency responders to examine information collected for the RMP and see chemical release reports. The regulation also requires facilities to evaluate potential risks from climate change and natural hazards.

At the virtual briefing, McCabe appeared with two speakers from Harris County, Texas, home of the Houston Ship Channel, which has a history of chemical production and accidents. The speakers—Jennifer M. Hadayia of Air Alliance Houston, a community group, and Harris County attorney Christian Menefee—both strongly endorsed the measure.

Although the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry trade association, supports parts of the regulation, such as the root-cause investigation provision, it strongly opposes the regulation overall. It warns in a statement that the EPA is “discarding its successful approach for enhancing chemical facility safety” by adding to “a surge in misguided regulations that undermine the ability of chemical manufacturers to create essential products here in the U.S.”

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, a US government agency that investigates chemical incidents, applauds the regulation and notes that the EPA included some of the board’s key recommendations, particularly regarding analysis of safer technologies and alternatives.

Community groups such as Coming Clean, a national coalition, also support the regulation. “We’re glad that EPA stood its ground despite strong industry pressure and required more RMP facilities to report on safer chemicals and processes that could be implemented to prevent chemical disasters,” Maya Nye, federal policy director for Coming Clean, says in a press release. “This establishes an important precedent. We will continue urging EPA to require all RMP facilities to identify and transition to safer chemicals and processes.”



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