By Mark Schleifstein
A New Orleans-based environmental group has joined other local and national environmental groups and a major chemical industry workers union in filing a federal lawsuit on Thursday to block the federal Environmental Protection Agency's plan to delay implementation of stronger safety rules for chemical plants and oil refineries for two years.
The EPA's Risk Management Plan rules were already the subject of an allowed three-month delay put in place by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in March, soon after he was appointed by President Donald Trump.
The rule was approved by EPA in January, one of the agency's last actions during the administration of President Barack Obama, after a multiyear review of safety regulations prompted by an Aprii 2013 Texas fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people. In explaining why the rule change was needed, EPA also cited several other accidents, including the June 2013 fire and explosion at Williams Olefins in Geismar, which killed two people and injured several others.
EPA's original risk rules were put in effect in the aftermath of a December 1984 accident involving toxic methyl isocyanate at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, that killed or injured more than 2,000 people, and an August 1985 accident involving the release of the same chemical at a pesticide plant near Charleston, W. Va.
The January rule changes govern how chemical manufacturing plants considered to be high-risk must share information with their fence line neighbors, how they review the effects of accidents, and their accident response plans.
The Louisiana Bucket Brigade joined Air Alliance Houston, California Communities Against Toxics, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, and the United Steelworkers in a motion filed Thursday in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"Delaying the Chemical Disaster Rule means the extreme dangers EPA tailored the rule to prevent will remain unaddressed for nearly two more years," said the motion. "Accidents will continue to take lives and cause other irreparable yet preventable harm to workers and nearby communities. Harm to movants' members - including injury or possible death - will not be remediable later."
The Bucket Brigade has been pushing for years for more stringent safety regulations for oil refineries and other petrochemical facilities in Louisiana, including the adoption of requirements for fence line monitoring of hazardous chemicals.
In July 2016, while serving as Oklahoma's attorney general, Pruitt wrote a letter to former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy opposing the rule changes, saying public release of some of the information would aid terrorists.
"As the federal agencies responsible for national security have warned you, compiling that information and making it easily accessible also aids those who might seek to cause an intentional release for nefarious purposes, by providing those bad actors with information that would help them both select a target and exploit any security vulnerabilities their target might have," he wrote.
Pruitt signed a rule on June 12 that delayed implementation of the rule changes until Feb. 19, 2019, after the delay was requested by industry trade organizations and a variety of major chemical and refining company executives, including Marathon Petroleum and Koch Industries. In granting the delay, Pruitt said it would allow the agency's new leaders to consider two industry petitions and a petition by 11 states for changes, and to "consider other issues that may benenfit from additional public input.
Potential changes being requested include reducing public access to information about facility operations, adjusting safety audit requirements and throwing out a requirement that high-risk plans must determine if they can use safer chemical manufacturing methods.
"EPA's sudden delay irresponsibly endangers workers, first responders, and communities living near chemical facilities. It also represents a shocking disregard for the rule of law and the process the government is required to follow before it takes away any health and safety protections under the Clean Air Act," said Gordon Sommers an attorney with Earthjustice, which is representing the Bucket Brigade and other environmental groups in the court action.
The group said that in approving the rule changes, EPA concluded that the regulations already in place had failed to prevent more than 2,000 chemical accidents around the country during a 10-year period.
The motion requests the appeals court to stay Pruitt's delay rule, or simply throw it out, arguing that the Clean Air Act prohibits postponing the effective date of the rule beyond a 3-month delay period, which expired on Monday. If the rule is stayed, the motion said, the appeals court should conduct a rapid review of its legality.