A coalition of thirteen organizations represented by Earthjustice recently sued the Trump administration for the unlawful gutting of the Chemical Disaster Rule, a suite of disaster prevention measures developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the wake of several deadly explosions and major chemical releases. Advocates across the country have been fighting for years to obtain these protections, which are now being eliminated despite mounting evidence of the danger communities face from chemical disasters.
“Our reality includes chemical fires, explosions, and fugitive emissions. This happened in Denver, Colorado, just weeks ago, for residents near the Suncor refinery. We are asking for common-sense protections from EPA. We have a right to request protections from our governing bodies.”
Yvette Arellano, t.e.j.a.s.
EPA put the Chemical Disaster Rule in place to strengthen chemical plants’ prevention and preparedness requirements for explosions and other catastrophes, ensure better and more frequent coordination with first responders, and bolster community access to information about the chemical hazards they live next to. But since entering office, the Trump administration has sought to repeal, stall, or weaken these protections. The administration illegally delayed the rule for more than a year — a move that was struck down in court thanks to a lawsuit Earthjustice litigated. Now EPA has “amended” the rule to eliminate virtually all disaster-prevention measures it established and weaken many other protections.
“By killing these critical protections, millions of people living near chemical facilities in the United States are put in harm’s way. We are fighting for the lives and safety of our families and workers. Our lives are more valuable than the bottom line of a few chemical barons,” said the coalition defending the rule.
When developing the rule, EPA determined that prior protections failed to prevent over 2,200 chemical fires, explosions, leaks, and similar incidents during a 10-year period, including over 100 per year that caused injuries. EPA also said the Chemical Disaster Rule’s protections are needed to save the lives of workers, first-responders, and fence line community residents.
“The EPA’s rollback of life-saving components of the Chemical Disaster Rule is not just unlawful, it is irresponsible,” said Earthjustice attorney Emma Cheuse. “Instead, EPA should do its job and ensure that chemical companies do everything in their power to keep surrounding communities safe, and avoid a worst-case scenario. Now that Trump’s EPA has decided to try again to gut these protections, and put chemical companies’ preferences over the safety of children in danger zones, we have no choice but to go to court.”
The lawsuit comes just weeks after a chemical plant exploded in Port Neches, Texas, displacing some 50,000 people and injuring eight others as the fire sent toxic plumes of 1,3-butadiene and other carcinogens into the air. This facility is covered by the current Chemical Disaster Rule. Without the Chemical Disaster Rule, this plant won’t have to conduct an assessment of safer alternatives for the plants’ operations, be subject to an independent safety audit, apply lessons learned from this incident to prevent future problems, or even train all supervisors responsible for managing dangerous chemical processes. Contrary to EPA’s justification for repealing these safety rules, prior enforcement at this very facility under the pre-existing regulatory framework failed to prevent this disaster which made children miss school, and continued to require shelter-in-place a week after the incident to try to reduce toxic exposure.
“No one should have to live, go to school, or play in parks next to petrochemical facilities or oil refineries. Everyone would agree with this, but these are the living conditions of many communities across the nation, including ours,” said Yvette Arellano, policy research and grassroots advocate, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services. “Our reality includes chemical fires, explosions, and fugitive emissions. This happened in Denver, Colorado, just weeks ago, for residents near the Suncor refinery. We are asking for common-sense protections from EPA. We have a right to request protections from our governing bodies. When thousands of families across the nation are forced to leave their homes or ordered to stay inside because the air is toxic, we have a problem. When children start vomiting in schools because of toxic air, we have a human rights crisis. There is always a cost to progress, but we know nothing is more valuable than a human life.”
Nearly 180 million Americans live in the worst-case scenario zones for a chemical disaster. At least one in three children go to a school near a hazardous chemical facility. About 12,500 industrial facilities nationwide use, store, or manage highly hazardous chemicals that the Chemical Disaster Rule covers. EPA’s new attack on the Chemical Disaster Rule comes some two years after EPA illegally suspended the rule to try to prevent it from taking effect. Following a lawsuit in which Earthjustice represented communities from around the country affected by chemical disasters, and in which the United Steelworkers Union and eleven states also participated, a federal court reinstated the rule and said EPA’s suspension made “a mockery of the statute.” EPA did not appeal that ruling.
“It is unconscionable for this administration to abandon common sense measures to prevent chemical disasters,” said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics. “The frontline community next to the Suncor Refinery in Denver has recently joined communities in California, in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Twin Cities in Wisconsin, and dozens of other communities that have faced the fallout of a chemical disaster since this president was elected. We need to prevent these chemical disasters and will now have to go back to court so EPA can’t get away with abandoning our communities.”
Earthjustice is representing Union of Concerned Scientists, Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, Coalition For A Safe Environment (Wilmington, CA), California Communities Against Toxics, Del Amo Action Committee, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Air Alliance Houston, Community In-Power & Development Association (Port Arthur, TX), Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, Clean Air Council (Philadelphia, PA), Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (West Virginia).
Learn more about what happened when the rule was illegally suspended.
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