EJ interventions | Innovations
Trump must not block efforts to prevent chemical disasters
** This Article was originally published on The Hill on May 31, 2017 **
By: Pamela Nixon
Millions of Americans live near chemical plants and are vulnerable if disaster strikes, yet the Trump administration stopped new important safety measures from taking effect any time soon.
I live in area with a high number of facilities with dangerous chemicals known as “Chemical Valley” in West Virginia. Multiple times during my 65 years of living here, I’ve had to shelter in place — tape up windows and huddle inside my home — when nearby plants have experienced explosions or chemical leaks.
More than 30 years have passed since a chemical release at a Union Carbide here that sent hundreds of workers and residents to the hospital, yet people are still being exposed to toxic chemicals during the frequent incidents at chemical plants in West Virginia and elsewhere. In 2008, an explosion at the former Union Carbide plant — then owned by Bayer CropScience — killed two people and injured eight more.
In 2010 at the DuPont plant in Belle , there was a series of accidents including the release of highly toxic phosgene, a gas which was used during World War I as a choking agent. Among the chemicals used in the war, phosgene was responsible for the large majority of deaths. The release exposed a worker at the plant, and resulted in his death one day later. In a 33 hour period this plant had a total of three different releases of dangerous chemicals including one that was not detected for three days.
After three decades of asking for better protections many safety advocates were hopeful when the EPA was making some progress on new rules to prevent these types of accidents. But that elation was short lived, because one of the first things the new EPA chief Scott Pruitt announced was to halt these much needed protections for nearly two years while it “reconsiders” the wisdom of providing Americans with basic safeguards from chemical disasters. There’s no question he intends to kill it as he vigorously opposed the rule during his tenure as Oklahoma’s Attorney General.
Not only that, but President Trump has proposed eliminating the Chemical Safety Board —an independent review board modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board — in his budget. The Board plays a vital role by investigating and recommending actions to prevent future disasters.
This has all led to constant stress and worry about what could happen next in communities like mine.
The EPA’s rule that is now being delayed and reconsidered is known as either the Risk Management Program rule or the Chemical Disaster Rule. The rule requires oil, gas and chemical facilities to analyze potential hazards and consider whether there are safer alternatives that could be feasibly implemented. It will also result in better community planning and preparedness, increase information sharing with emergency planning committees like the one I am a member of, and improve coordination with local first responders so they can more safely and effectively respond to disasters.
It’s a rule we need, and it is long overdue.
As a member of a Local Emergency Planning Committee that develops emergency response plans to reduce danger to communities, I know it is crucial for first responders to have information about which hazardous materials are being used at local chemical plants and other industrial facilities. These facilities must work to put in place safer processes wherever possible, using less dangerous materials whenever feasible. I also know how hard it is for us to access that information right now.
This rule should not be delayed any further. It most certainly should not be killed. And the Chemical Safety Board should be strengthened, not eliminated. People in the communities like mine near these plants need these safeguards desperately.
EPA’s new protections would give me and others living in Chemical Valley — and hundreds of other communities across the nation — the tools we need to protect our own health, and would require our dangerous neighbors to adopt a few simple best practices to keep our workers and first responders safe.
These chemical plants — like other polluting facilities — tend to be disproportionately located near low-income and minority communities. Perhaps that’s because the companies that run them don’t think our voices will be heeded by the government. We can't let that happen.
Pam Nixon retired as Environmental Advocate for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection in 2014. She is president of People Concerned About Chemical Safety and the Board of Directors with Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC).