After an explosion at a fertilizer plant killed 15 people in West, Texas, in 2013, the EPA created new safety protections for the storage of dangerous chemicals. Now, at the urging of the industry, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is delaying those rules until 2019.
The Obama-era rules strengthened risk-management plans at chemical facilities, required third-party audits if something went wrong, and mandated some disclosure of the location of dangerous chemicals to protect first responders and others.
But industries that work with chemicals pushed back. When Republicans returned to Washington D.C., this year, the rules were targeted for a full rollback under the Congressional Review Act. That effort failed in Congress. Now, Pruitt is delaying the regulations until the EPA has had time to overhaul them.
Opponents of the rules claimed they were too costly and said they worried about the disclosure requirements. They argued if they disclosed where dangerous chemicals were stored, terrorists could use that information to plan attacks.
“On balance, EPA determined during the Obama administration that that [terrorist] risk was outweighed by the benefits of protecting the first responders in situations where we do have [dangerous chemical] releases,” said Tom McGarity, who teaches environmental law at UT Austin.
The decision to delay implementing the rules has already been the subject of lawsuits from environmental groups, though McGarity believes the rules will likely end up being substantially weakened.
No matter what happens to the regulations, it is a strange irony that the rules, as they were drafted under President Obama, would not have helped protect people from the explosion in West.
While the EPA cited "the tragedy at the West Fertilizer facility in West, Texas" as one of the reasons for issuing its updated rules, it didn’t include ammonium nitrate, the chemical that caused that explosion, on its list of chemicals to come under the stricter regulation.
“Ammonium nitrate is what blew up this town, and someone’s got to be looking into that,” West Mayor Tommy Muska told KUT earlier this year.