From “Cancer Alley” to Potentially Deadly Explosions: We have a Duty to Protect Fenceline Communities and Workers
The following post is authored by Harley Stokes, BlueGreen Alliance Policy Advisor.
Fenceline communities and workers at chemical facilities live in a state of constant danger as the threat of explosions, fires, and chemical releases looms. The burden of threat lies disproportionately on the shoulders of workers and poor communities of color.
In late January, six workers were injured in an explosion at the Westlake chemical plant in southwest Louisiana. Less than four months earlier in September 2021, another Westlake chemical plant in Sulphur, Louisiana left 22 workers injured. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan had been mere miles from this petrochemical complex on his November “Journey to Justice” tour during which he spotlighted environmental justice communities. This month, there was yet another fire at a chemical plant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where the threat of a potentially massive ammonium nitrate explosion resulted in a days-long evacuation of the local community.
In addition to exposure to these types of disasters, fenceline communities also live with toxic pollution emitted from these facilities. In the Westlake community, the cancer risk is 8.5 times what EPA has defined as an “acceptable risk,” due to the toxic air regularly produced by multiple chemical facilities. This is part of a larger trend for fenceline communities, including those located near clusters of chemical facilities in Louisiana consisting of an 85 mile corridor from Baton Rouge to New Orleans known as “Cancer Alley.” The proximity of chemical facilities packed so tightly together also poses a constant threat of a domino effect in which one facility explosion could trigger explosions at nearby facilities.
“It is, therefore, the policy of my Administration to listen to the science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides; to hold polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities.” President Biden’s Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis
Since the start of the Biden administration, efforts are underway to mitigate these threats, but until strong legislation and enforced standards are in place these communities and workers will continue to live in danger. The House-passed Build Back Better Act had included close to $200 million for fenceline air monitoring and air quality sensors that could be utilized by environmental justice communities to collect trusted data and help hold chemical facilities accountable to the public’s health and safety. Additionally, the BlueGreen Alliance and other stakeholders have long been pushing for more robust safety standards and oversight through the EPA Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB).
On the same day as the Westlake chemical explosion, local and state officials sent a letter to Administrator Regan urging the EPA to adopt a strengthened RMP rule. Also the same day, EPA issued a press release following the “Journey to Justice” tour highlighting actions to be taken including:
- Holding companies more accountable for their actions in overburdened communities with increased monitoring and oversight of polluting facilities.
- Applying best available science to agency policymaking to safeguard public health and protect the environment.
All three of these events happening on the same day highlight the urgent need to take concrete action to protect fenceline communities and workers by strengthening the RMP rule.
Risk Management Plan (RMP)
Since the start of the Biden administration, the EPA has begun a review of the Risk Management Plan — commonly known as the Chemical Disaster Rule—that regulates chemical facilities. The BlueGreen Alliance submitted comments in August 2021 during EPA’s listening sessions on the RMP rule urging a strengthened standard that protects industrial workers, fenceline communities, and first responders and above all else prioritizes saving lives and preventing injury and illness.
The BlueGreen Alliance’s comments on strengthening the RMP rule included the following recommendations:
Ensure workers are meaningfully represented at the decision-making table: In the case of Westlake, the workers are contractors which means, in part, they are not protected by a union to demand safer working conditions nor are they participating in risk management decisions that affect their health and safety. A good example is union workers who fought and won the right to have worker representation and voting ability when it comes to risk management decisions impacting safety and health for refinery workers in California.
Protect environmental justice and fenceline communities: Communities living on the fenceline of chemical facilities such as those in Sulphur, Westlake, and Winston-Salem are low-income, communities of color that face multiple exposures. This includes chronic exposure to toxic pollutants from multiple RMP and non-RMP chemical facilities coupled with the constant threat of an explosion or fire that threatens their families, their homes, and their wellbeing. In order to address disproportionate hazards from RMP facilities and advance environmental justice, any RMP rule must address clusters of RMP facilities in some communities and the multiple, cumulative hazards these facilities present.
Include climate-related prevention and safety measures: The frequency and magnitude of industrial chemical releases (and the threat of fires and explosions) increase during hurricane season in Gulf states. In the last two years, the community of Westlake has experienced two hurricanes, a deep freeze, and flooding. Every natural disaster that threatens a technical failure at a chemical plant is a double disaster, also known as “natech disaster,” waiting to happen. Every RMP facility should be required to have constantly available, reliable back up power that can be operated during extreme weather events.
Require robust emergency planning: Best practices for emergency planning include measures such as back-up power, alerts in multiple languages, fenceline air monitoring, leak detection and repair and routine emergency response exercises. In Winston-Salem, emergency planning would have benefitted the large Hispanic population living near the fenceline because there were no plans in place to translate emergency notifications into Spanish.
Expand coverage of the RMP rule to more facilities, processes, and chemicals: The chemical facilities at Westlake that held ethylene dichloride and the Winston-Salem facility with explosive ammonium nitrate are not RMP facilities though they pose a grave threat to human health and safety. Advocates have been lobbying for years to expand the list of chemicals covered under RMP, including ammonium nitrate .
Chemical Safety Board
Another policy lever to prevent future chemical disasters is the CSB. The CSB investigates chemical disasters and makes recommendations to industry and government on best ways to prevent future incidents. The five-member board has had four vacant seats for over 18 months which has limited its ability to investigate and process reports. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works confirmed two board members in December 2021, but two vacancies remain. It is essential that the Senate move quickly to fill the remaining open seats.
Workers and fenceline communities of chemical facilities—whether categorized as RMP or not—face the constant threat of disaster while also facing chronic exposure to toxic pollutants. The Biden administration has shown promising steps towards addressing these threats. Now is the time for action. Strengthen the RMP rule.