Judge Holds Feds to the Fire on Chemical-Spill Reporting

WASHINGTON (CN) – Nearly 30 years after Congress passed a law to ensure that chemical spills get reported, the federal agency tasked with studying these spills still has no reporting requirements in place. A federal judge told the agency Monday that it has 12 more months to shape up. 

Floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey overflow from Buffalo Bayou in downtown Houston, Texas, on Aug. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

The order follows a lawsuit in Washington by four groups against the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazards Board for unreasonably delaying the promulgation of reporting requirements demanded in 1990 by Congress.

Led by Air Alliance Houston, the groups won summary judgment Monday from U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta.

“Although the CSB’s enabling act does not require the agency to establish reporting regulations by a date certain, there can be no doubt that the congressional directive to adopt such regulations is a discrete act that the CSB is required to take,” the 22-page opinion states. “In the past, the CSB readily conceded that ‘a reporting regulation is clearly required by the statute.’” 

As public interest organizations, the plaintiffs argued that delays in reporting of accidental emissions make their job of raising community awareness harder — causing harm when communities aren’t warned in time of dangerous, unseen chemical emissions.

“This ruling vindicates a community’s basic right to know what chemical insult has been visited upon it,” said Paula Dinerstein, general counsel for co-plaintiff Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “Accidents do not relieve industries of their clean air obligations or their duties to protect both worker and public health.” 

The case first emerged when Air Alliance Houston staff were exposed to unknown chemical emissions after Hurricane Harvey while living and working near facilities that should have been required to report such emissions to the CSB. 

Members of co-plaintiff Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental justice organization, also live and work near industrial complexes. Because these plants don’t need to report their accidental emissions, Louisiana Bucket Brigade said it is unable to provide timely safety information to members and the surrounding communities. 

Judge Mehta also noted that the Louisiana Bucket Brigade partakes “in an annual awareness-raising bicycle ride through contaminated areas, during which members have experienced ‘burning of the eyes, difficulty breathing, and overall discomfort’ from accidental chemical releases.” 

Kristen Kulinowksi, the interim executive director of the CSB, said in an email that the agency is reviewing Judge Mehta’s ruling for possible response. “The CSB is fully committed to the health and safety of workers and communities across the country,” she continued. “We will endeavor to create a reporting rule that fulfills our mission to drive che mical safety change.” 

Judge Mehta showed no patience for the agency’s defense.

“The CSB’s only justification for its inaction is that it is ‘a small agency with very limited resources’ that has ‘prioritized its investigatory activities over [ ] rulemaking,’” he wrote. “But, if that is the case, the solution to its resource constraints is not to ignore a congressional directive. It is to return to Congress and ask for relief from the statutory requirement.”

Joining Air Alliance Houston, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and PEER as plaintiffs were United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities and Neil Carman, the who heads the Clean Air Program for the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter in Texas.

%d bloggers like this: