The US EPA has finalized a rule to ease chemical plant safety regulations. Under the Risk Management Plan (RMP) changes finalized in November, chemical plants will no longer be subject to “unnecessary regulatory burdens.” The changes were first proposed in May 2018. According to EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, “Accident prevention is a top priority of the EPA and this rule promotes improved coordination between chemical facilities and emergency responders, reduces unnecessary regulatory burdens, and addresses security risks associated with previous amendments to the RMP rule.”

The rule aligns with the wishes of the chemical industry, which argued that the January 2017 regulatory changes implemented by the Obama administration were too expensive and unnecessarily burdensome. The 2017 changes were implemented after the 2013 fertilizer explosion in West, TX. However, according to the EPA, those states that adopted the new rule didn’t demonstrate a decline in accident rates when compared to the accident rates under the original rule that was adopted nationwide in 1996.

The RMP regulates nearly 12,500 facilities in the US. The rule finalized in November would affect requirements that plant owners consider safer alternatives to various technologies, get third-party audits to check for compliance with accident prevention rules, conduct “root cause” analyses after incidents, and disclose certain information to the community about operations. Other major components of the rule, including provisions on coordination with local emergency services and exercises for emergency situations, now have delayed implementation dates.

The EPA argued that those changes, which were sought by industry groups and companies, would answer security concerns, reduce unnecessary costs, and better reconcile with current OSHA worker safety rules. Along with these benefits, the rule would also reduce costs by $88 million. The estimated cost savings would mostly stem from removing requirements to consider safer alternatives but also from eliminating audits and root-cause investigations.

Initially, the EPA had sought to suspend the rule altogether, but a March 2018 ruling reinstated the rule, so the EPA instead made changes and delayed implementation.

Reaction to the finalized rule has been mixed. Industry groups have been largely supportive while environmental groups have been critical. The American Petroleum Institute’s Ron Chittim, refining, downstream, and industry operations manager, stated, “The oil and gas industry’s top priority is ensuring the safety and security of employees, local communities, and the environment. We welcome the EPA’s efforts to adhere to the statutory scope of the Clean Air Act and issue performance-based RMP regulations that provide both regulatory consistency and appropriately balance transparency with national security and public safety.”

According to a press release from opponents, including Michele Roberts, Environmental Justice Health Alliance; Eric Whalen, BlueGreen Alliance; and Paul Orum, an independent expert on chemical facility safety; the rule puts workers at RMP facilities and the public at risk. In a coordinated press release, these three spokespeople said, “Despite overwhelming public support for the modest improvements to the EPA’s chemical disaster prevention rule (the RMP) adopted during the Obama administration — reflected in support from over 150 public health, worker, environmental justice, and national security organizations — the Trump EPA has now reversed those Amendments at the behest of the chemical industry. The rollback weakens disaster prevention requirements at over 12,000 high-risk industrial and commercial facilities across the United States, putting over 177 million residents and over 1 million workers at greater risk of a chemical disaster.”