May 25, 2018 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt was all smiles at the signing ceremony.  He was putting his name on a proposal to repeal a regulation he calls burdensome. Firefighters, on the other hand, call the regulation necessary. They say it will protect the lives of first responders and the public.

Looking at who surrounded Pruitt when he penned his proposal tells you all you need to know about who will benefit if his plan is adopted. Pruitt’s invited guests were lawyers, lobbyists and allies in the chemical industry. They weren’t fire fighters.

The regulations that Pruitt wants to repeal were adopted at the end of the Obama administration. They are amendments to EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP). The rules apply to about 12,500 facilities nationwide and are designed to more effectively prevent chemical explosions, fires, and accidental releases. The key word is prevent.

The Obama administration was compelled to improve the RMP following the catastrophic explosion in 2013 at West Fertilizer. The incident killed 12 volunteer firefighters and three members of the public. It caused more than $100 million in property damage, according to Insurance Council of Texas.

Pruitt is proposing to repeal nearly all of the 2017 amendments, including

  • a requirement for facilities to conduct a “root cause” investigation if they have a catastrophic release of chemicals or a near miss incident;
  • a requirement for facilities to get a third-party safety audit if they have certain types of chemical releases or incidents;
  • a requirement for high-risk facilities, such as chemical manufacturing plants, to determine whether they could use safer technologies; and
  • a requirement for facilities to make certain information available to the public, such as chemical hazard information and accident histories.

Jordan Barab at Confined Space lays out EPA’s weak rationale for proposing to repeal the RMP amendments. One is EPA’s laughable excuse that they need to wait for OSHA to revisit its process safety management regulation.

When Scott Pruitt was Oklahoma’s Attorney General he opposed the RMP amendments.  When he became EPA administrator, he stopped the regulatory improvements from taking effect and then delayed the effective date even further.  A number of groups, including the United Steelworkers, Earthjustice, and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, filed lawsuits to challenge Pruitt’s decision to delay the RMP amendments.

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) also told Pruitt not to delay the new rules.  IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger, writing on behalf of 305,000 professional fire fighters and emergency medical personnel, said:

“Further delay would potentially endanger not only the public, but the lives of fire fighters responsible for responding  to incidents at chemical facilities. … Thousands of industrial facilities  across the country pose a substantial risk to the public and responding personnel, including fire fighters.”

Pruitt ignored the fire fighters.

The rules have not taken effect.

And Pruitt wants to make the situation worse.

Among many other provisions, EPA is proposing to repeal a requirement that could mean life or death for fire fighters. The RMP amendments adopted in 2017 gave emergency response agencies the authority to obtain from these facilities their emergency response plans (if they exist) and “any other information that they identify as relevant to local emergency planning.”  Fire fighters might find it useful to know about close call incidents, or to review investigation reports or records about training exercises. EPA was deferring to the expertise of fire fighters to know what information could help them plan for local emergencies. As noted in the 2017 amendments, the provision

“will allow local emergency planners and response officials to ask questions of facility personnel about the risks associated with the chemical hazards at the facility and about appropriate mitigation and response techniques to use in the event of a chemical release.  It further allows the facility owner or operator and the local emergency planning committee (LEPC) to identify information that may need to be maintained securely and discuss strategies to secure the information or to provide only information that is pertinent to emergency response planning without revealing security vulnerabilities.”

The Chemical Safety Advocacy Group is one industry group that complained about this provision for fire fighters. They want facilities to be able to withhold any information that the business considers confidential.  What a company claims is “confidential business information,” however, may be the exact kind of record or report that would assist fire fighters in making informed emergency planning decisions.

When a fire, explosion or chemical release occurs, we expect our fire fighters to respond. In order to do so safely and effectively, emergency responders need accurate information about the chemical hazards and potential risks in their communities.  The 2017 RMP amendments were going to help local fire fighters better prepare for chemical emergencies. Scott Pruitt is now deciding to choose business interests above the needs of fire fighters.

 

 

 

 

 

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