Five years ago, 15,000 people had to seek medical attention for symptoms of exposure to toxic smoke, including shortness of breath, chest pain, and headaches. They all had one thing in common—they had been in communities that were downwind from a Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, where a pipe carrying fuel oil ruptured and released flammable vapors into the air. The vapors had immediately endangered 19 facility workers and minutes later the vapor cloud ignited into a massive fireball and plume of smoke that spread over the northeastern Bay area.
Subsequent investigations identified a series of warnings that went unheeded. According to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, in the years leading up to the 2012 fire, Chevron managers had learned from their own engineers that pipes in the plant’s crude unit were corroding and needed inspection and replacement. In 2009, engineers even warned of a “catastrophic failure.” Despite these warnings, managers still deferred action.
The Chevron disaster served as a stark reminder about the dangers for workers and communities of high hazard industries and the importance of safety regulations. This was one of several incidents that led to important steps being taken to prevent these catastrophic failures.
After an extensive multi-agency stakeholder comment process, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formulated and updated its Risk Management Program (RMP) regulations in 2016. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration recently decided to delay their implementation. And while these RMP rules were a big improvement, much more needs to be done. Rather than delay these rules, the Trump administration should be strengthening them.
Workers, first responders, and communities deserve to have the information they need to ensure that they are safe and prepared to respond in the case of a future refinery failure or incident. But this is not just an issue for those who live and work around the facilities—it also affects about one in three school children who attend schools located in the vulnerability zone of a hazardous facility. Too many Americans have had to evacuate, shelter in place, or race to pick up a child at school as an industrial fire burns or a chemical release heads their way.
This past week, Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee urged the EPA to stop delaying the RMP rules. The senators wrote a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, which highlighted the extensive process that was undertaken to finalize the RMP rules and called for their immediate implementation.
To make matters worse, the President’s budget slashes funding for important EPA and Department of Labor programs, including enforcement. With these cut-backs, the agencies tasked with protecting workers and communities would not be able to implement and enforce key protections already on the books.
It also eliminates the Chemical Safety Board altogether—the independent agency that investigates chemical disasters in order to make recommendations to improve industrial safety practices—just like it did after the incident at Chevron five years ago.
We simply can’t afford to back away from the protections that already exist—or to wait on updating and improving these safeguards. We’ve seen the devastating impacts of what can happen when safeguards are not in place.
First responders, workers, and residents who live in the communities surrounding industrial facilities deserve to have these long-overdue rules implemented and strengthened—their health and safety depend on it.