Groups Urge EPA To Safeguard Public From Climate-Fueled Chemical Disasters

July 9, 2021
Three national environmental and scientific advocacy organizations call on the administration to take steps to better protect workers and fenceline communities from climate-driven chemical disasters.

Three national environmental and scientific advocacy groups release a policy brief to respond to the call for information from the Biden administration on ways the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should take stronger action to protect communities at risk of chemical disasters worsened by hurricanes, floods, wildfires and other climate events. The Center for Progressive Reform, Earthjustice and the Union of Concerned Scientists issue a joint call for reform in the new policy brief, released one day before the EPA holds a virtual public listening session on preventing industrial chemical disasters. The agency had requested information on climate risks and resilience.

The brief shows the public health and safety risks of "natech" disasters — when natural hazards like storms and earthquakes coincide with or contribute to infrastructure failures like chemical plant spills and explosions — provides new data illustrating this problem and urges the administration to take steps to better protect workers and fenceline communities. The brief finds that 3,856, or one-third of all regulated Risk Management Program chemical facilities, are sited in areas known to be prone to flooding, hurricanes, wildfires or other extreme weather. As current data are not available on all natural disaster risks, this is a likely underestimate of the hazards. The groups are calling on EPA to strengthen its Risk Management Program (RMP) by expanding coverage to more facilities and adapting it to require industrial chemical facilities to take account of and prepare for natural hazards worsened by climate change. 

“The problem is clear and endemic. Even officials from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board and other independent safety experts have called for stronger action to prevent chemical disasters,” says Michelle Mabson, a staff scientist at Earthjustice. “Workers have cried out for action after being ‘locked in’ at inadequately prepared chemical facilities during hurricanes. Communities who live near major industrial sites have long endured threats from natural disasters and are also demanding reform.” 

According to Earthjustice, EPA’s regulatory program neither addresses natural disasters, even though these are getting worse due to climate change, nor requires RMP facilities to take specific action to protect people from natech disasters or the cumulative and compounding hazardous exposures that can result.

“It’s long past time to address these ‘double disasters,’” says David Flores, senior policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform. “As the global climate crisis intensifies, communities are increasingly at risk of natural disasters. When industrial facilities in these communities fail to adequately prepare for extreme storms, wildfires, heat waves, floods, rising sea levels and other natural disasters, hazardous chemicals stored onsite can ignite and explode, sometimes causing dangerous and even catastrophic releases of toxic pollution that threaten the health and safety of workers and the public.”

During the Obama years, EPA took some steps to strengthen the Risk Management Program, but the Trump administration rolled those efforts back at the behest of the chemical industry. The Biden administration reportedly plans to review the program and issue a new final rule by September 2023, though it is unclear what action it will take.

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