Days before President Barack Obama left office in 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized a rule aimed at preventing tragedies like the 2013 explosion and fire in the tiny Central Texas town of West that killed a dozen first responders.
Among other requirements, what came to be known as the "Chemical Disaster Rule" would have made it easier for the public to access hazard-planning documents and required increased coordination with first responders. It also required companies to provide increased emergency planning information to local officials and to hold more frequent meetings and trainings.
On Thursday, the EPA — which delayed implementation of the Obama rule after Trump took office — announced it would largely unwind the regulation, which was widely unpopular among the chemical industry. Republican officials argued it was too burdensome and increased the risk of terror attacks as it required some divulgence by facilities as to what dangerous chemicals they stored. Some first responder groups also have argued the regulation is too complex, though in lawsuits filed after West and other recent chemical plant explosions, first responders have argued that a lack of information impacted their ability to respond effectively.
An EPA fact sheet explains that the new regulations would rescind most of the public information availability provisions of the Obama-era rule and modify the emergency coordination and exercise provisions, as well as suspend all accident prevention program provisions while EPA coordinates with other federal agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on further regulations. The factsheet also noted that an investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms found that the West incident was due to arson.
“Today’s final action addresses emergency responders’ longstanding concerns and maintains important public safety measures while saving Americans roughly $88 million per year,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. “Accident prevention is a top priority of the EPA and this rule promotes improved coordination between chemical facilities and emergency responders, reduces unnecessary regulatory burdens, and addresses security risks associated with previous amendments to the RMP rule.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised the new rule in a statement sent out by the EPA, saying he was "grateful to the EPA for making the changes necessary to get the Risk Management Plan rule back in line with public safety and a proper balance of power between state and federal authorities."
"These revisions to the Obama-administrations’ last-minute rule will make Texans safer, ease the burden on state and local governments, and restore some common sense to the regulatory process," Paxton said. "By listening to the state and local experts who have pointed out the national security and public safety risks of publishing sensitive information about refineries, chemical plants, manufacturing facilities, and agricultural operations, the Trump Administration has shown its dedication to putting the rule of law and the safety of Americans first."
Texas' Republican leadership has been outspoken in their opposition to the Obama-era rule — and moved to weaken public disclosure requirements even before the administration acted.
In 2014, citing the need to keep sensitive information hidden because of "ongoing terroristic activity," Paxton's predecessor, now-Gov. Greg Abbott, ruled that the state no longer had to release plants’ chemical inventories, saying the companies themselves would.
Environmental advocates have long complained about lax chemical storage and disclosure laws, arguing that the toothlessness worsens the impact of disasters — or causes them in the first place. Texas has seen several major chemical fires and explosions since West, including one at a chemical manufacturing plant during Hurricane Harvey and two earlier this year at facilities in the Houston area.
"In the Trump administration, human lives are expendable, but short-term corporate profits are not," said Stephanie Thomas, a Houston-based organizer and researcher with watchdog group Public Citizen. "Today’s rollback of the chemical disaster rule keeps Americans who are at risk in the face of chemical disasters squarely in harm’s way."
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