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Friday, March 8, 2024

Chemical accidents can happen anywhere, even in Charlestown

EPA moves to limit frequent chemical accidents


EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s been less than a year since Charlestown’s most recent chemical accident. On April 11, 2023, there was a fire at Brookwoods Finishing Industries (better known as Kenyon Mill) just off Route 2. A fire and release occurred in the dye house. Three people were checked for exposure and neighboring residents were warned to stay indoors. – Will Collette

Hundreds of chemical facilities around the US must implement new procedures to try to better safeguard communities from accidents that are happening with alarming frequency and jeopardizing human and environmental health, regulators said this week.

New measures announced Friday by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) require industrial operators to “prevent accidental releases of dangerous chemicals that could otherwise cause deaths and injuries, damage property and the environment, or require surrounding communities to evacuate or shelter-in-place.”

The final rule, which amends the EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP) that applies to plants dealing with hazardous chemicals, asks facilities to evaluate the risks of natural hazards and climate change, makes information about chemical hazards more accessible for people living near these facilities. The rule also allows for plant employees to stop working when they think there is a potential hazard.

The new requirements are expected to reduce the frequency and severity of accidents, building on revisions proposed in 2022. They provide the most protective safety provisions for chemical facilities in the EPA’s history, EPA deputy administrator Janet McCabe said on a press call.

Accidental releases of chemicals from industrial facilities cost the US more than $540 million each year, McCabe said on the press call, not including major catastrophes that can individually cost much more.

Almost daily disasters

Many industry organizations opposed the new requirements, including the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute, among others. The groups argued that most facilities operate safely and new rules could hurt industry ability to supply essential goods and services.

But community and worker advocacy groups demanded EPA action. And pressure ramped up on the EPA last year after a network of environmental and economic justice organizations reported that hazardous chemical accidents have been occurring almost every day, on average, in the United States, exposing people to dangerous toxins through fires, explosions, leaks, spills and other types of releases.

The network applauded the EPA’s actions this week.

“We’re glad that EPA stood its ground despite strong industry pressure and required more [Risk Management Program] facilities to report on safer chemicals and processes that could be implemented to prevent chemical disasters,” Maya Nye, federal policy director for the environmental health collaborative Coming Clean, said in a press release. “This establishes an important precedent.”

The Coming Clean report found hundreds of accidents happening each year, with the majority tied to the fossil fuel industry. Acknowledging the frequency of incidents, the EPA previously told The New Lede that over the past 10 years the agency has “performed an average of 235 emergency response actions per year, including responses to discharges of hazardous chemicals or oil.”

Overall, there are close to 12,000 facilities across the nation that house “extremely hazardous chemicals” in amounts that could be harmful if accidentally released, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

The final rule will require about 1,489 of those facilities to conduct new evaluations of how feasible it would be to switch to safer technologies.

Of those, the EPA expects 620 facilities that are more “accident-prone” will be required to implement some type of safeguard as a “great first step,” Bill Noggle, acting director of the Office of Emergency Management’s Regulations Implementation Division, said on the press call.

“We think we’ve got the right mix where we’re targeting the right industry sectors with higher accident frequency,” Noggle said.

Explosions, fires and leaks

The EPA cited as an example a 2019 explosion and fire at Port Neches, Texas, which the agency said resulted in the evacuation of 50,000 people, the largest number of evacuees in history. The incident also led to $153 million in offsite property damage.

In August, a chemical leak and fire at a petroleum refinery in Louisiana forced community evacuations. The leak involved a petrochemical used to make gasoline that can contain cancer-causing benzene.

And in just the first two months of this year, four chemical-related incidents have occurred in Harris County, Texas, one of the most heavily populated counties in the country, Jennifer Hadaiya, executive director of the nonprofit Air Alliance Houston, said on the EPA call.

Among the events – a winter storm forced oil refineries, petrochemical plants, and other facilities to shut down, resulting in the release of more than two million pounds of toxins into the air.

Many recent disasters “could have been prevented, or their impacts mitigated, if we had had a stronger rule in place,” said Hadaiya, who grew up along the Houston Ship Channel where many chemical facilities are located. Air Alliance Houston believes the final rule will save lives, she said.