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EPA mulls delay of risk management program changes

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Planned changes to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s Risk Management Program would not prevent tragic incidents such as the West, Texas, fertilizer disaster, which was ultimately ruled an act of arson, according to supporters of a proposed implementation delay. 

“The current risk management program regulations are working well,” said Richard Gupton, vice president for public policy and counsel with the Agricultural Retailers Association in Washington. “The new regulations will impose additional compliance costs on industry, potentially make sensitive security information available to the public and not provide, in our opinion, any significant safety increases.”

But supporters of the program amendments urged the agency not to delay the regulation any further, citing the dangers posed to low-income and minority communities and first responders. 

The final amendments include crucial improvements and the transparency needed by affected communities to protect themselves from chemical facility incidents, said Charise Johnson, Washington-based research associate with the Center for Science and Democracy’s Union of Concerned Scientists. 

“We’re disheartened that the long-waited amendments of the RMP rule have been delayed,” she said. “By delaying the rule, we’re deciding to put the best interests of industry over public health.” 

The April 2013 explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. killed 12 emergency responders and three civilians and injured more than 260 others, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. The disaster prompted then-President Barack Obama to issue an executive order in August 2013 to several agencies, including the EPA, to strengthen the Risk Management Program to improve safety and security at these facilities. 

The program amendments were scheduled to take effect March 14, but President Donald Trump's administration delayed the effective date, first to March 21 and then to June 19. The administration is currently considering petitions to reconsider the regulation and further delay the amendments to Feb. 19, 2019, filed by industry groups and a coalition of 11 U.S. states. 

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined the West, Texas blaze was intentionally set and constituted a criminal act, Mr. Gupton and other speakers supporting a delay said. 

“I think it’s important that we realize that the explosion, which was initially considered an accidental chemical release, really prompted all the actions we’re here to talk about,” said Bill Erny, senior director at the American Chemistry Council in Washington. 

Regulated entities will be required to coordinate with local emergency responders at least annually on an emergency response plan and to ensure that responders are aware of the risks, quantities of the regulated substances at their facilities and their ability to respond to accidental releases under the amendments. This is in direct response to the West disaster because the emergency responders were unaware of the ammonia nitrate risks present at the facility and attempted to put out the fire rather than focusing on evacuations, experts said. 

But the rule “doesn’t regulate ammonia nitrate and would do virtually nothing to prevent” incidents such as the West explosion and could unintentionally lead to similar criminal actions because of its “troubling” information-sharing requirements, Mr. Erny said. 

Facilities would be required to inform the public of their rights to certain information about the hazardous substances at their facilities and how to request the information, according to the amendments.

“The rule doesn’t allow facilities to deny requests that raise red flags or provide safeguards to ensure that those requesting the information use it for the appropriate purpose of emergency preparedness,” he said. 

But the fact that the West, Texas, fire was a criminal act is no reason not to move forward with the program amendments, said David Halperin, a Washington-based attorney and former White House National Security Council and U.S. Senate staffer. 

“It may have been sabotage, but that does not undercut the urgency of implementing this rule,” he said.