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An explosion and fire at a Wisconsin oil refinery are shining a light on several proposed or pending U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations that have stalled under the Trump administration.
These workplace safety and risk management regulations were being pursued in response to several incidents at oil and gas refineries and the West, Texas, fertilizer explosion that killed 15 people in 2013, including 12 emergency responders, and caused millions of dollars in mostly uninsured damage.
“Most of the really important rules have helped a great deal, but there are gaps and there are holes in coverage,” said Margaret Seminario, director of safety and health at the AFL-CIO union in Washington. “Following the West, Texas, disaster … President (Barack) Obama signed an executive order that directed the agencies to take a range of actions to strengthen protections on chemical risks because the risks are not only to workers, they’re clearly to communities themselves as well, as we saw in West, Texas, and as we saw in Superior, Wisconsin.”
A fire occurred at the Superior Refinery owned by Calgary, Alberta-based Husky Energy Inc. on April 26, causing injuries to workers and the evacuation of area residents due to safety concerns, according to a statement on the Husky Energy website.
“There is considerable work to be done to understand the cause of this incident and to ensure it does not happen again,” the company, which could not be reached for additional comment, said in the statement.
The Chemical Safety Board has deployed a four-person investigative team to the scene, according to a board statement.
OSHA cited the refinery for four workplace safety violations when it was owned by Calumet Specialty Products Partners L.P., which sold the refinery and related assets to Husky Energy for $492 million in November. The Indianapolis-based independent producer of specialty hydrocarbon and fuels products was assessed $16,800 in total penalties, according to OSHA records. A Calumet spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
In December 2016, 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 2017, but was delayed until June 2017 by the Trump administration, which eventually issued a new regulation further delaying the effective date to Feb. 19, 2019, so it could consider petitions to reconsider the program amendments.
The EPA’s decision to delay the RMP amendments resulted in a lawsuit filed in July 2017 by a group of 11 state attorneys general in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The lawsuit accused the Trump administration of implementing an illegal two-year delay and asked the court to vacate the delay rule.
“Unfortunately, this is another case where the Trump administration is moving to either stop or roll back rules,” Ms. Seminario said.
OSHA had a process safety management regulation in the works that had considerable overlap with the EPA’s RMP rule-making, but the OSHA proposal — which would have modernized the agency’s PSM and related standards to prevent major chemical accidents — was moved off the active rule-making list to the long-term list.
“With that, it’s anybody’s guess,” said Micah Smith, of counsel with Conn Maciel Carey L.L.P.’s OSHA workplace safety practice group in Washington. “It could live on the long-term agenda for years or if (Scott) Mugno gets confirmed and decides that is something (OSHA) wants to look at, it could come right off of it the next go around. I don’t think anyone is actually anticipating that that’s going to happen, particularly given where the RMP rule is. They’re trying to keep that in a holding pattern as well.”
Ms. Seminario also cited an emergency preparedness draft rule that was developed by a subcommittee of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health for OSHA consideration. It would require emergency service organizations to write and implement a comprehensive risk management plan covering risks associated with administration, facilities, training, vehicle operations, protective clothing and equipment, emergency and nonemergency incidents and related activities.
“There was broad agreement that that rule should move forward and that rule has also been put on hold,” she said. “The strengthening regulations at OSHA have been put on the back burner and, worse than that, at EPA they’re moving to roll back and weaken protections when it comes to chemical safety.”
“The OSHA rules on emergency planning are very, very limited,” she continued. “We’ve seen over the years that firefighters, emergency responders and others are at high risk, but the other problem is the people that work in the facilities are at risk if there are no emergency plans.”
OSHA “seems to be in a little bit of a holding pattern” as it awaits Senate confirmation of Mr. Mugno, the nominee to head the agency, Mr. Smith said. “In the absence of the political leadership, there’s not as much drive to change things or push things forward.”
These types of incidents have some potential to spur action by federal regulators and legislators, experts say. For example, OSHA, the EPA and the Department of Homeland Security are working on new protocols for communicating and training with local governments and first responders when a company in their area is hit with a serious citation. This effort was spurred on by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who lobbied for the protocols in the wake of a fatal chemical explosion and fire at a New Windsor, New York, cosmetics factory in November.
Whether the Superior incident has such impact “will really depend on what the cause was,” Mr. Smith said.
But the lack of movement on federal regulations doesn’t mean the agencies aren’t enforcing their current regulations related to chemical facilities, he said.
Mr. Smith cited an OSHA national emphasis program focused on PSM covered chemical facilities that started in 2017. Initial inspections implied that the agency would have “a little bit of a lighter touch,” but more recent inspections indicated that inspectors will take “a fairly deep dive” when conducting inspections at refineries, he said.
“It could turn into a major enforcement effort even without a new rule,” Mr. Smith said.
A deadly explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant highlights the importance of identifying, addressing and communicating such facilities' unique hazards, particularly since many are in or near population centers.