The Environmental Protection Agency intends to block an Obama-era proposal and effectively shield companies from scrutiny about how they prevent and respond to chemical disasters. At a hearing Thursday, agency officials got an earful from dozens of people who live and work near refineries and chemical facilities across the country.
Grandmothers, teachers, firefighters and community activists traveled to Washington, D.C., to urge the agency to block the proposal. Representatives from industry groups countered that they're already doing enough to keep people safe and that companies don't need more oversight.
Obama-era rules require companies to routinely disclose which hazardous chemicals they use, share information with emergency planners, submit to outside audits and publish reports on the root causes of explosions and leaks. The regulations were supposed to take effect in March 2017, but earlier that year, groups representing the chemical and petroleum industries petitioned the EPA to reconsider.
Last month, after delaying the rules, the agency announced that it intends to block most of them from ever taking effect. But that decision isn't final pending public comment.
At the time, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the plan would "reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens, address the concerns of stakeholders and emergency responders on the ground, and save Americans roughly $88 million a year."
The reaction from many people who live or work near chemical facilities was immediate.
"With all due respect to Scott Pruitt, he's never lost 15 firefighter friends," Tommy Muska, the mayor of West, Texas, told the Austin American-Statesman. "I'm as pro-business as anyone, but some things are way, way, way more important than too much regulation, and that includes the safety of these chemical plants."
In 2013, an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West killed 15 firefighters, injured at least 200 people and destroyed much of the town.
At Thursday's hearing at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., representatives from the American Petroleum Institute and American Chemistry Council, both industry groups, argued that rolling back the new regulations is the right thing to do. They said this is partly because companies that use dangerous chemicals already have profit and regulatory incentives to prevent disasters.
Requiring companies to, for example, submit to third-party audits or routinely analyze whether there are new and safer technologies available "would have imposed a vague and significant burden" said Ron Chittim, a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute. Bill Erny of the American Chemistry Council added that an analysis by his industry group found that only a small percentage of facilities were responsible for the majority of accidents, and argued that sites that haven't reported problems shouldn't face tighter regulations.
But this "bad apple" idea ignores the importance of preparing for leaks and other disasters, local emergency planners say.
"The entire community is responsible for preparedness. That means the entire community needs to understand the risks to the community," Timothy Gablehouse, who leads a local emergency planning committee outside Denver, told the EPA panel. "The response does not begin at the 911 call."
He and others cited the deaths of first responders in West, Texas as well as Hurricane Harvey-caused fires at the Arkema chemical plant outside Houston last year. Police and other first responders involved in the Arkema incident said they were exposed to toxic fumes partly because local officials didn't have enough information about what was stored at the plant, and how to handle an emergency like the one that unfolded during the storm.
The rules the EPA wants to rescind would require companies to disclose information to local emergency planners about the types and amounts of hazardous chemicals at their facilities. In their petition to the EPA, industry groups say disclosing such information "could expose vulnerabilities to terrorists and others who may target refineries, chemical plants and other facilities."
The chemical and oil industries have a long history of opposing anti-terror regulations that require them to switch to safer technologies.
Many workers at refineries and chemical facilities also oppose the EPA's proposal.
"The regulations need to be reformed," says Mike Smith, a longtime operator at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., and a current local representative of the United Steelworkers Union. In 2012, the refinery he worked at caught fire, injuring six employees and sending thousands of nearby residents to the hospital with breathing problems.
California subsequently updated state safety regulations with many of the same requirements now being rescinded at the federal level, including requirements that companies conduct investigations into the root cause of disasters and routinely update their facilities with new, safer technologies.
"Shutting down the plant to fix something is better than a catastrophic event that can cost not only the company money and put us in danger ... put the community in danger," Smith says.
"If industries were authentic in their pursuit of justice for the communities, they would listen to the voices of the residents. The residents are also the workers, a lot of the time," says Mildred McClain, a community organizer who traveled to D.C. to represent families living near industrial sites around Savannah, Ga. She says it's the EPA's responsibility to push companies to protect workers and residents, because the companies are driven by profit.
"We're just trying to protect ourselves. We're just asking for information about the chemicals in our neighborhoods," McClain says. If the EPA goes ahead with its proposal, she predicts, "The companies will just keep saying 'I'm meeting the EPA standard' while the community members are saying, 'But we're sick, we still smell stuff and we still don't have a concrete plan as to what we'd do if there was a major disaster.' "
The EPA is taking public comments on the new chemical disaster regulations until July 30, and expects to make a final decision later this year.