On February 18, 2015, an explosion took place at the ExxonMobil Torrance refinery in Southern California. "It was only sheer luck that the hydrofluoric acid tank wasn't hit," said Dr. Sally Hayati, president of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance. If it had been hit, the collision could have released a toxic ground-hugging cloud with the potential to kill for nine miles and cause serious and irreversible injuries for up to 16 miles under worst-case scenario projections, she added. "This is yet another symptom of how in our country we always put profit ahead of safety," Hayati said.
The US has three to four times the accident rate of the European refinery industry, where regulations are more stringent.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Risk Management Program (RMP) impacts roughly 12,500 facilities, including oil refineries, large chemical manufacturers, pulp and paper mills, and even waste-water treatment plants and food packing plants. According to EPA data, over 1,500 accidents were reported by RMP facilities between 2004 and 2013, causing nearly 60 deaths. Some 17,000 people were injured or needed medical treatment, with almost 500,000 people needing to be evacuated or kept indoors and more than $2 billion in property damages. A 2008 report found that upwards of 80 million Americans live within range of a worst-case toxic gas release from at least one of the 101 most hazardous chemical facilities nationwide. A 2014 Center for Effective Government report also found that at least one third of America's schoolchildren attends a school within the vulnerability zone of a high-risk RMP chemical facility. Half of those students (over 10.3 million schoolchildren) are in schools located in more than one chemical vulnerability zone. Indeed, a number of metro areas -- including Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Memphis, Tennessee and Wilmington, Delaware -- contain many schools in multiple vulnerability zones. Houston is another densely populated area where many schools sit in the shadow of multiple RMP facilities. An eight-part Houston Chronicle investigation started last year reveals how hundreds of potentially dangerous chemicals stored at facilities across greater Houston go largely unmonitored at all levels of government. There are vested interests who argue that it's in the nation's security interests to allow companies to keep secret portions of their chemical inventory.
Just before Obama exited office, the EPA put in place a new federal rule setting tougher safety procedures. The new rule, the first significant updates to the RMP in some 20 years and after more than three years of negotiations, and it addresses plant safety in a number of critical areas, such as emergency response, accident prevention and information disclosure. After an accident occurs, for example, facilities are required to conduct more thorough investigations to better understand what caused them. In some cases, an independent third party must be brought in to conduct its own audit. Facilities must be more transparent about certain information critical for first responders and local residents, such as what chemicals are stored on site. And as is pointed out in the amendment, "one of the factors that can contribute to the severity of chemical accidents is a lack of effective coordination between a facility and local emergency responders." As such, facilities are required to better coordinate with first responders and local emergency planning committees.
The new rule was supposed to come into effect in March. But after a petition opposing the rule was filed by a coalition of trade associations, the EPA initially stayed its implementation for three months. Then, after various states and companies in the refining, oil and gas, chemical and manufacturing sector filed further petitions, the EPA proposed to extend the stay an additional 20 months -- until February 19, 2019. Scott Pruitt will take the side of industry and further delay, weaken or even try to abrogate the new rule entirely. When still Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt asked the agency to withdraw the rule, citing national security concerns.
As Gordon Sommers, associate attorney with Earthjustice, said, "We know where he stands and we know that his arguments are the same arguments that the big industries are making," said Sommers. "We know his priority is not protecting these communities."