In the aftermath of the 2013 explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas that killed 15 and injured 150, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wrote a rule to require facilities where hazardous chemicals are stored to disclose the nature of the material to local first responders. In West, firefighters did not know what chemicals were present at the plant. The rules was set to take effect next week. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has delayed implementation until at least June.
Chemical industry groups oppose the rule, asserting that sharing information about material stored in facilities like the one in West would put the area at risk for terrorist attacks. Thomas McGarity, professor of environmental and administrative law at the University of Texas at Austin says that’s not a valid worry.
“That’s really pretty much a smoke screen. [The chemical industry] objected to the original Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act that was enacted back in 1986 after the horrible Bhopal incident that killed hundreds of people in India,” McGarity says. “And they objected to the statute itself, which simply requires companies to tell first responders in the local area what it is they’re storing, and [to] come up with plans to prevent accidents, and then to deal with accidents once they happen.”
McGarity says the 2013 rule was written with an awareness of terrorism risks.
“When [EPA] promulgated these regulations – the ones we’re talking about now – [chemical companies] objected on the same basis. But EPA responded to those objections,” McGarity says. ”Basically it says we are willing to trust emergency responders with non-sensitive information – but with information that a terrorist might use – because we need to protect [the first responders] when something goes wrong.”
Chemical companies motives for opposing the EPA rule are financial, McGarity says.
“They’re trying to preserve their commercial interest in what they have on their premises – trade secrets and things like that.”
Complying with the rule, McGarity says, should not be a burden.
“It requires a company to coordinate with first responders to come up with a plan – and every three years to…rehearse this on a tabletop basis, and then every ten years to actually conduct a trial release, and see how they coordinate,” McGarity says.
McGarity says the EPA rule is not the only regulation created in response to the West disaster.
“One other reform was undertaken by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is concerned with the workers – where there might be explosions or chemical release. But they just issued guidelines. They aren’t requirements. “
If the industry doesn’t want to be regulated, McGarity suggests they could do a lot to cooperate with first responders and to prevent disasters.
“One way is, as I suggested, to trust the first responders not to be giving this information away to terrorists,” he says “But the other thing to do is obviously to secure their plants. I don’t think the answer – and we haven’t had a single terrorist attack on a chemical facility that I’m aware of – is not to take away the public’s right to know what risks they’re under, but to come up with some security devices within the plants themselves to secure against things that terrorists might get.”
Written by Shelly Brisbin.