New E.P.A. Rules Aim to Minimize Damage From Chemical Facilities

The Biden administration issued new rules on Friday designed to prevent disasters at almost 12,000 chemical plants and other industrial sites nationwide that handle hazardous materials.

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

“We’re putting in place important safeguards to protect some of our most vulnerable populations,” Janet McCabe, Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, told reporters ahead of the announcement.

Administration officials called the stronger measures a step forward for safety at a time when hazards like floods and wildfires — made more extreme by global warming — pose a threat to industrial sites across the country. In 2017, severe flooding from Hurricane Harvey knocked out power at a peroxide plant outside Houston, causing chemicals to overheat and explode, triggering local evacuations.

Some safety advocates said the rules don’t go far enough. They have long called for rules that would make facilities switch to safer technologies and chemicals to prevent disasters in the first place. The new regulations stop shy of such requirements for most facilities.

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

“If we simply require facilities that store or utilize large amounts of chlorine or other dangerous chemicals to transition to inherently safer technologies wherever feasible,” Mr. Biden said at a hearing of the Senate environment and public works committee in June 2006, “we could, in fact, completely or primarily eliminate known threats to our communities.”

“He was a leader on this, but now that he’s in charge, there’s no there, there,” said Rick Hind, an environmental consultant and the former legislative director at Greenpeace.

The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday morning.

The E.P.A. estimates that more than 130 million people live within three miles of sites that handle hazardous chemicals that are covered by the new rule. In a “worst-case scenario” accident, more than 2,000 of those sites could endanger 100,000 people or more, according to a 2020 Congressional Research Service report. Eighty-three of those facilities could endanger more than a million people in a worst-case scenario, the report said.

Facilities include chemical plants and wholesalers, oil refineries, natural gas plants, wastewater treatment plants, fertilizer distributors, many of them critical infrastructure, but also a risk to nearby communities.

Former President Barack Obama had tried to strengthen the rules, proposing safeguards after a deadly 2013 explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas killed 15 people. The Trump administration rolled back most of those rules before they took effect, part of a slew of environmental and safety regulations that it unraveled. In 2021, the E.P.A. announced plans to restore the rule.

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

“The use of inherently safer alternatives is the only foolproof way to prevent worst-case scenarios from becoming catastrophic disasters,” Christine Todd Whitman, a former New Jersey governor and the E.P.A. administrator under George W. Bush, urged in a 2022 letter co-signed by several retired army generals.

There are examples of chemical manufacturers swiftly adopting alternatives. In 2009, The Clorox Company announced it would phase out the use of chlorine gas, a particularly hazardous chemical used as a chemical weapon in World War I, at all of its factories. Three years later, the company said it had completed that task.

And following the 9/11 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 from its premises in a matter of weeks.

In comments submitted to the E.P.A. during the rule-making 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 “burden affected industries by requiring them to undertake extensive new trainings, retrofits, and analyses, none of which will result in a reduction of accidental releases,” the industry group said. Moreover, “natural hazards are inherently difficult to predict, and complete protection may be infeasible.”

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

Still, the goal should be to “minimize certain chemicals, substitute, simplify,” he said. “If we can do that, it’s a good way to improve safety.”

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