Obama-era chemical industry safety rules in limbo

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is reconsidering chemical facility disclosure requirements issued during the tail end of the Obama administration. Public comments about the decision are due tomorrow.

Supporters say the EPA’s Risk Management Program should be updated to protect communities near plants that produce dangerous chemicals. But industry representatives fear the changes could put confidential business information and public safety at risk.

“We support the public’s right to know,” says Ed Flynn, vice president and director of health, safety and security for the Louisiana Chemical Association. “But some of the additional public disclosure elements in the revised rules could have some unintended consequences.”

Under current law, Local Emergency Planning Committees develop emergency response plans and release information about chemicals manufactured at local facilities. LEPCs include elected officials, first responders, community groups and facility representatives, and supporters say the rules update will improve coordination among those groups.

“The modest improvements to the RMP rule, which in reality are best practices, should take effect now,” argued Yogin Kothari, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, at a Washington, D.C. public hearing.

But the new rules would require far more disclosure than is needed for an effective emergency response, Flynn says. The information could fall into the wrong hands, he says—possibly leading to business interruption, espionage or even a terrorist act.

LCA also worries about a proposed requirement to hold public meetings within 30 days of a reportable accident. The definition of “reportable accident” is unclear, Flynn says, and holding public meetings within such a brief time frame could result in unverified information being released before the investigation is complete.

Wilma Subra is technical director for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, which favors robust public disclosure of emergency contingency plans and the possible health effects of chemical releases.

“If they [implement] the rules as they were proposed, it’s a great improvement on behalf of the community,” Subra says. “Not enough, but we’ll take anything at this point.”

Subra says people with bad intentions already can track down the information. The goal is to make the facts more accessible to the general public, she says.

The Risk Management Program amendments were published on January 13, but EPA, under new administrator Scott Pruitt, has delayed implementation. On June 19, the agency is scheduled to either let the rules stand as issued or push the effective date back to Feb. 19, 2019.

Public comments about the decision are due tomorrow and can be submitted here.The agency eventually could decide to revise or scrap the amendments.  

—David Jacobs

There are no comments. Click to add your thoughts!