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EPA sets new rules to limit disaster damage at chemical facilities

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The Biden administration on Friday issued new rules intended to prevent disasters at the nation’s nearly 12,000 chemical plants and other industrial sites that handle hazardous materials.

For the first time, the regulations require facilities to explicitly address disasters, such as storms or floods, that could trigger an accidental release, including threats from climate change. For the first time, chemical sites that have already experienced accidents will have to undergo an independent audit. And the rules require chemical plants to share more information with neighbors and emergency responders.

“We are putting important safeguards in place to protect some of our most vulnerable populations,” Janet McCabe, deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, told reporters before the announcement.

Administration officials called the tougher measures a step forward in safety at a time when risks such as flooding and wildfires — made even more extreme by global warming — pose a threat on industrial sites across the country. In 2017, severe flooding from Hurricane Harvey knocked out power to a peroxide factory outside Houston, causing chemicals overheat and explodetriggering local evacuations.

Some safety advocates have said the rules don’t go far enough. They have long called for rules that would force facilities to adopt safer technologies and chemicals to prevent disasters. The new regulations do not meet these requirements for most installations.

The lack of tougher requirements was particularly disappointing, advocates said, because President Biden championed similar measures, as a senator, to strengthen national security.

“If we simply require that facilities that store or use large amounts of chlorine or other hazardous chemicals transition to inherently safer technologies where possible,” Mr. Biden said. during a hearing from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in June 2006, “we could, in fact, completely or mostly eliminate known threats to our communities.”

“He was a leader in this area, but now that he’s in charge, there’s nothing more that can be done,” said Rick Hind, an environmental consultant and former legislative director of Greenpeace.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment Friday morning.

The EPA estimates that more than 130 million people live within three miles of sites handling hazardous chemicals covered by the new rule. In the “worst case scenario” of an accident, more than 2,000 of these sites could endanger 100,000 people or more, according to a 2020 Congressional Research Service report. According to the report, eighty-three of these facilities could endanger more than a million people in a worst-case scenario.

Facilities include chemical factories and wholesalers, oil refineries, natural gas plants, wastewater treatment plants, fertilizer distributors, many of which are critical infrastructure, but also pose a risk for neighboring communities.

Former President Barack Obama tried to strengthen the rules, proposing safeguards after a deadly explosion in 2013 at a fertilizer plant in Texas killed 15 people. The Trump administration rolled back most of those rules before they took effect, as part of a series of environmental and safety measures. regulations he dismantled. In 2021, the EPA announced plans to reinstate the rule.

Since then, a coalition of environmental groups and experts, as well as national security experts and former military officials concerned about terrorist and other threats to chemical sites, have pushed the EPA to require hazardous sites use safer chemicals.

“Using inherently safer alternatives is the only surefire way to prevent worst-case scenarios from turning into catastrophic disasters,” Christine Todd Whitman, former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator under George W. Bush , urged in a 2022 letter co-signed by several retired army generals.

There are examples of chemical manufacturers that have quickly adopted alternatives. In 2009, The Clorox Company announced that it would phase out the use of chlorine gas, a particularly dangerous chemical used as a chemical weapon during World War I, at all of its factories. Three years later, the company said it had accomplished that task.

And after the September 11 attacks, a wastewater treatment plant in Washington, D.C., just miles from the White House and the U.S. Capitol, removed hundreds of tons of explosive liquid chlorine and sulfur dioxide in a few weeks.

In comments submitted to the EPA during the rulemaking process, the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s largest lobbying group, pushed back against the measure, saying safer technologies were “not simple to identify or implement.” Overall, the rules “require affected industries to undertake new training, renovations and extensive analysis, none of which will result in a reduction in accidental releases,” the industry group said. Additionally, “natural hazards are inherently difficult to predict, and complete protection may not be feasible.”

Qingsheng Wang, an associate professor of chemical engineering at Texas A&M University who specializes in process safety, said switching to safer alternatives is a no-brainer for new facilities able to start from scratch. “But for existing facilities, changing processes could prove very difficult,” he said.

The goal should nonetheless be to “minimize certain chemicals, replace them, simplify them,” he said. “If we can achieve that, it’s a good way to improve safety.”

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