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Industrial Safety

Report finds hundreds of accidents but is challenged by industry

Community advocates say results argue for new safety regulations

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
November 17, 2023

An aerial view of a chemical plant on fire.
Credit: US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board
Community groups want a tougher risk management program to prevent chemical accidents, such as this one in Texas in 2019.

A new report by a coalition of community and health organizations has identified 825 hazardous chemical incidents in the US since January 2021.

The number of incidents tallied by the group is far higher than the number previously identified by government bodies responsible for collecting accident information and regulating companies. A majority of the incidents, 344, occurred in the plastics and petrochemical sectors, the group says.

The study was led by Coming Clean, an environmental health organization. The review tabulated media and other reports of hazardous chemical incidents, including leaks, spills, and releases of toxic or flammable chemicals. The total also includes incidents involving fires and explosions in transportation, storage, use, manufacture, and disposal.

The study found 43 people were killed in these incidents. More than 150 resulted in injury, hospitalization, or reports of acute symptoms.

The groups are using the report to push the Environmental Protection Agency to reauthorize and toughen its risk management program (RMP). The 30-year-old program is intended to protect communities near facilities that handle large amounts of hazardous chemicals. The program affects some 12,500 facilities and more than 100 million people living near the plants, according to the EPA.

A new tougher regulation was proposed in August 2022, and the EPA began a series of public meetings. Among its provisions, it would require RMP-covered facilities to develop procedures for informing the public about accidental releases of chemicals and require local responders to be notified of accidents and chemical releases. It calls for consideration of inherently safer processes and manufacturing designs in RMP facilities as well as root cause analysis following an RMP-reportable incident. Additionally, it would require third-party audits following significant accidents at high-risk facilities.

A similar regulation was issued at the end of the Obama presidency but was withdrawn by the Trump administration and never put into practice.

The chemical industry opposes the proposed RMP revamp as overreach and unnecessary. “Our industry continues to make progress driving down the number of incidents at chemical facilities,” says the American Chemistry Council, a trade association, in a statement. “The report does not tell the full story. According to data collected by EPA under the RMP program, the number of accidents has dropped by nearly 80% at regulated facilities and most facilities have never reported any accident over two decades.”


The coalition challenges that figure. “Public records suggest that incidents are not always reported by facilities until months or years after the fact, making it difficult for EPA to determine and report out whether incident rates are decreasing or increasing,” Steve Taylor, program director at Coming Clean, says in a statement.

“Regardless,” Taylor continues, “our aggregation of news reports show that an unacceptable number of incidents are occurring every year. The real question is why highly profitable companies shouldn’t be required to take common sense measures to remove hazards whenever possible, to prevent disasters in the first place.”


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