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EPA targeted in lawsuit over chemical regulation delay

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A group of 11 state attorneys general have sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for delaying a regulation designed to prevent chemical accidents such as the West, Texas, fertilizer disaster that killed 15 people. 

The lawsuit filed Monday in the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit accuses the Trump administration of implementing an illegal two-year delay to the accidental release prevention regulations under Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act — also known as the EPA risk management program regulations — and asked the court to vacate the delay rule. The lawsuit is being led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and signed by the attorneys general of New York, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

“Protecting our workers, first responders and communities from chemical accidents should be something on which we all agree,” he said in a statement on Monday. “Yet the Trump EPA continues to put special interests before the health and safety of the people they serve. It’s simply outrageous to block these common-sense protections.”

In December, the EPA under the Obama administration issued a rule amending its risk management program regulations that aimed to prevent accidental releases at chemical facilities and improve emergency response activities when those releases occur. The rule was scheduled to take effect in March, but was delayed until June by the Trump administration, which eventually issued a new regulation further delaying the effective date to Feb. 19, 2019, so that it could consider petitions to reconsider the program amendments. 

The first petition was filed on Feb. 28 on behalf of the RMP Coalition, which consists of the American Chemistry Council, the American Forest & Paper Association, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute, the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Utility Air Regulatory Group. A second petition was filed on March 13 by the Chemical Safety Advocacy Group, a coalition of companies in the refining, oil and gas, chemicals and general manufacturing sector. A third petition was filed the next day by Louisiana, joined by ten other states: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

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. It also gave new momentum to an effort to encourage the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to expeditiously pursue a formal rule-making for an emergency responder preparedness program standard.

The amended rules would require covered facilities to develop and implement a risk management program, according to the agency. The amendments are intended to prevent catastrophic accidents by improving accident prevention program requirements, enhancing emergency preparedness to ensure coordination between facilities and local communities, improving information access to help the public understand the risks at risk management program facilities and improving third-party audits at these facilities. 

While numerous chemical plants are operated safely, more than 1,500 accidents were reported by risk management program facilities in the past 10 years, according to the EPA. These accidents are responsible for causing nearly 60 deaths, about 17,000 people being injured or seeking medical treatment, almost 500,000 people being evacuated or sheltered-in-place, and more than $2 billion in property damages.

“We don’t comment on pending litigation,” an EPA spokesperson said in an emailed statement.