The critical situation at a chemical plant compromised by Hurricane Harvey’s flooding is all over the news, and rightfully so. Two small containers of highly volatile organic peroxides have already exploded, and residents living within a 1.5-mile radius of the Houston-area plant were asked to evacuate. Fifteen local sheriff’s deputies went to the hospital after getting close to the plant, though all have been released. And Arkema officials say that the worst may not be over. A larger explosion could still occur.
In a statement, the Environmental Protection Agency said it had deployed an aircraft to secure chemical information from the smoke cloud and has sent air monitoring personnel to the scene, as well as a disaster response coordinator. “We will consider using any authority we have to further address the situation to protect human health and the environment,” Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement.
But as the crisis is unfolding, we shouldn’t forget that Pruitt’s EPA is delaying an Obama-era chemical safety plant rule that would soon have covered this very plant. In June, the EPA announced it would delay implementation of what environmental groups call the Chemical Disaster Rule for two years. Pruitt’s reason, of course, was industry concerns—specifically, the concerns that it would be hard for companies to implement, and that disclosure of their chemicals could be a national security threat.
The rule, which is actually an amendment to the federal Risk Management Program, was intended to improve accident preparation at facilities. Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told me it was “specifically designed to make sure that large chemical facilities and refineries do more to ensure they are prepared for emergencies and provide local communities with the information they need to deal with potential explosions and releases just like the ones we are seeing today.”
Here are some of the specifics, via ThinkProgress’ Natasha Geiling:
[The rule] required facilities to conduct root-cause analyses in the event of a chemical release or explosion, to pinpoint exactly what led to the incident. The rule also required facilities to contract with an independent third-party to perform a compliance audit after any incident that caused death, injury, or significant damage.
Under the Obama administration’s rule, regulated facilities would have to provide local emergency responders with the facility’s emergency response plan and would have to conduct annual exercises to test the facility’s ability to effectively communicate with both emergency responders and the public in the event of a release or explosion.
Finally, the rule required that chemical facilities share chemical hazard information with the public upon request, and that the companies provide notification of the availability of such information on their website, via social media, or some other public platform.
Just to be completely clear: The EPA’s decision to delay this particular rule is in no way affecting the situation at the Arkema plant. But environmental groups are pointing to Arkema as an example of what could happen in the future without the regulations. “The Arkema disaster is just the kind situation that the Chemical Disaster Rule is meant to mitigate,” said Gordon Sommers, an Earthjustice attorney suing the EPA over its delay of the regulation. “The last thing that a community battling hurricanes and floods needs is a hazardous chemical release on top of that, but unfortunately that extra threat is what many communities in Texas and Louisiana face because the Trump Administration is delaying chemical disaster prevention measures.”
On Thursday the White House announced that the president would donate $1 million of his personal fortune to hurricane relief efforts. But if you were expecting to hear Trump’s EPA pledge to implement the Chemical Disaster Rule, you’ll have to keep on waiting.