Often without knowing it, many Americans live and work in close proximity to industrial facilities that use extremely toxic and flammable substances – chemicals like chlorine (we associate it with summertime fun, but it’s actually highly corrosive and can damage the lungs and other organs), and hydrogen sulfide (which smells like rotten eggs and causes respiratory and neurological disorders). In addition to the elevated risk of cancers and other illnesses from the daily (and often, nightly) smokestack emissions, these communities face ongoing risk of chemical leaks, fires, and explosions. The EPA recently proposed to update its “Risk Management Program” regulation to better protect workers and surrounding communities from chemical disasters.
Moms Clean Air Force and the Environmental Defense Fund submitted comments urging EPA to strengthen its proposal. We are asking the agency to swiftly adopt the strongest possible protections for the fenceline and environmental justice communities, workers, and first responders most impacted by hazardous and often life-threatening chemical disasters.
The nation’s most dangerous industries, such as petrochemical facilities, refineries, and paper manufacturing, are disproportionately concentrated in underserved communities. People living in Black, brown and low-income neighborhoods – especially those in Texas, Louisiana, and other Gulf Coast states – face some of the highest risks of injury or fatality. Chemical disasters are routine for these workers and residents. People of color represent nearly half of those who live within one mile of Risk Management Program facilities – which are some of the most hazardous chemical operations in the country.
Adding to the danger, many over-burdened and under-resourced communities are located near multiple high-risk facilities. In their homes, schools, medical facilities, and places of work and worship, these residents face constant risk of chemical disaster. EDF conducted an assessment of the excess lifetime cancer risk from the cumulative inhalation exposure to 58 of these substances. The analysis revealed large cancer risk hotspots around dense industrial areas due to overlapping risks from exposure to multiple hazardous air pollutants emitted by multiple facilities.
One such hotspot is the Lake Charles area in Louisiana, which has 37 dangerous Risk Management Program facilities within 10 miles of each other, putting residents in multiple overlapping chemical release vulnerability zones. Moms Clean Air Force is thrilled to announce that we have brought on board this week Roishetta Ozane to help lead our field operations in the Lake Charles region.
What follows are some highlights from our recommendations to EPA.
- Climate-related hazards. Nearly a third of these high-risk facilities are located in areas with natural hazards (such as wildfires, flooding, and storm surges) that may be worsened by climate change. We strongly support EPA’s proposal to consider climate-related hazards in risk evaluations. We urge the agency to expand this requirement to all facilities and to ensure that the evaluation accounts for start-up, shutdown, and malfunction related emissions.
- Back-up power. Power outages and restarts can result in wide-ranging risks, including malfunctions, inoperative lights and other safety equipment, temperature excursions, tank overflows, and dangerous chemical reactions. We urge EPA to strengthen its proposal by requiring robust back-up power systems for affected processes, and we encourage the agency to help bring about the expanded adoption of community microgrids powered by renewables.
- Facility siting. By focusing narrowly on the risk of harm from a single release from a single facility, the EPA proposal fails to capture the magnitude of exposure risk and to account for social conditions and past exposures that exacerbate these risks. We urge EPA to require that facility siting decisions include the evaluation of cumulative pollution exposures, recognizing that many communities live in close proximity to multiple facilities.
- Safer Technology and Alternatives Analysis. The proposed rule does not require dangerous facilities to use inherently safer chemicals, processes, or technologies, even when such alternatives are readily available and feasible. We urge EPA to require all Risk Management Program facilities to assess the availability of safer technologies and to require implementation of safer technologies identified – not simply documentation of their existence. EPA’s proposal would require only specific industrial sectors (petroleum and coal products manufacturers and chemical manufacturers) to conduct these alternatives evaluations – and only if the facilities are located within a mile of each other. Moreover, EPA makes implementation of the safer alternatives completely optional.
No other types of facilities are asked to conduct alternatives analyses except those using hydrogen fluoride (HF) in an alkylation unit (HF is used as a catalyst in making high-octane gasoline). Hydrogen fluoride presents an extraordinary hazard; HF vapor clouds can sicken or kill workers and residents for miles around. EPA acknowledges that recognized safer alternatives are available and have been successfully implemented, yet the agency does not tell companies to transition away from hydrogen fluoride.
- Worker participation. Recognizing that workers face the greatest risk and have a deep understanding of system operations and associated hazards, we support provisions enabling workers (including contractors) to file anonymous reports and to stop work in dangerous situations, and we ask EPA to apply these provisions to all operations. We also support reforms aimed at increasing and enabling workers and their representatives to take part in incident inspections and compliance audits. We favor enhanced information distribution, employee participation and training, and anti-discrimination measures.
- Emergency response. Information sharing prior to a disaster is especially important because in the immediate aftermath of a flood, fire, explosion, or other incident, community notification systems may be hampered by power outages, access inequities, or other disruptions. Moms and EDF support proactive emergency response requirements including training, multilingual community notification, and improved information access for first responders.
- Information availability. EPA proposes to limit the sharing of chemical hazard information to residents within a 6-mile radius — an arbitrary cut-off that does not even include all who live within the worst-case scenario impact zones. EPA disregards the risks faced by those residing outside the 6-mile radius, and it relies on locational data, supplied by facilities, that is often highly inaccurate. We urge EPA to create a publicly available, readily accessible, consolidated electronic database that houses program information. In addition, we call on the agency to dramatically reduce the turnaround time in which facilities respond to information requests.
- Costs and benefits. Our analysis finds that EPA underestimates the benefits of increased public health protections while giving considerable emphasis to the financial costs to hazardous industries, for example in transitioning to safer alternatives.
- Program coverage. We urge EPA to expand the list of dangerous chemicals included in its chemical disaster program. The program leaves out hundreds of extremely toxic chemicals such as the notorious ammonium nitrate, responsible for deadly explosions in the US and globally. In addition, we urge EPA to revise the threshold quantities that trigger protective safeguards. The limited number of chemicals on the list and the absurdly high threshold quantities mean that many stockpiles of toxic chemicals are excluded from the program altogether.
- Fenceline monitoring. We ask EPA to include requirements for fenceline monitoring of facilities and to develop associated requirements to ensure accuracy, reliability, and availability of real-time monitoring data. We also ask EPA to make data from community air pollution monitors actionable in a permitting and enforcement context.
Moms Clean Air Force and EDF urge EPA to expeditiously adopt a more robust rule delivering the strongest possible protections for those who work in or live in the vicinity of chemical facilities, including environmental justice communities, first responders, children, and families.