Rollback of Chemical-Disaster Rule Spurs DC Circuit Challenge

WASHINGTON (CN) – Just a few weeks after a chemical plant explosion displaced 50,000 people in Texas the day before Thanksgiving, 13 environmental organizations are contesting the Trump administration’s recent effort to unravel chemical-disaster regulations.

Ray Moore and Milton Perio observe the fire consuming TPC Group plant on Nov. 27, 2019, in Port Neches, Texas. Two massive explosions 13 hours apart tore through the chemical plant Wednesday, and one left several workers injured. (Marie D. De Jesús/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Air Alliance Houston and the others filed their challenge with the D.C. Circuit on Thursday, taking aim at the Environmental Protection Agency’s elimination of a rule that requires chemical plant workers to coordinate with first responders in the event of deadly explosions and chemical releases.

Without the rule, plants like the one that exploded last month in Texas could return to their operations without having to comply with an independent safety audit or explore safer practices that could prevent similar explosions in the future. The groups say this rule is also what mandates that chemical plants train supervisors to manage dangerous chemical processes in the first place, a feature that makes it a lifesaver to workers, first-responders and the communities that live nearby.

“Now that Trump’s EPA has decided to try again to gut these protections, and put chemical companies’ preferences over the safety of children in danger zones, we have no choice but to go to court,” Earthjustice attorney Emma Cheuse in a statement Thursday about the challenge.

The rule was conceived in 2013 after several catastrophic incidents. While conducting research to create the rule, the EPA found that prior protections failed to prevent more than 2,200 chemical fires, explosions, leaks and similar incidents over the course of 10 years.

“The EPA’s rollback of life-saving components of the Chemical Disaster Rule is not just unlawful, it is irresponsible,” Cheuse said. “Instead, EPA should do its job and ensure that chemical companies do everything in their power to keep surrounding communities safe, and avoid a worst-case scenario.”

Trump’s EPA had initially tried to stop the Obama-era rule from taking effect, but the D.C. Circuit ruled that delay unlawful in 2018.

An estimated 180 million Americans live in the worst-case scenario zones for a chemical disaster, according to Earthjustice, which represents the challengers.

Other plaintiffs include the Union of Concerned Scientists, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

Yvette Arellano with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services championed the rule as one that protects people who live, go to school, or play in parks next to petrochemical facilities or oil refineries.

“We are asking for common-sense protections from EPA,” Arellano said in a statement Thursday. “We have a right to request protections from our governing bodies. When thousands of families across the nation are forced to leave their homes or ordered to stay inside because the air is toxic, we have a problem. When children start vomiting in schools because of toxic air, we have a human rights crisis. There is always a cost to progress, but we know nothing is more valuable than a human life.”

EPA spokeswoman Maggie Sauerhage declined to comment Thursday, citing agency policy on pending litigation.

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