Fourteen states sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) late last month over its rollback of a rule on the storage and control of dangerous chemicals, saying the change will increase the risk of explosions and threaten public safety.
The states are asking a federal appeals court to overturn EPA’s reversal of a 2017 rule amendment that placed stricter requirements on companies over how they store chemicals and deal with chemical emergencies.
The city of Philadelphia joined the states in the suit. A major refinery explosion there last summer released thousands of gallons of deadly hydrofluoric acid, shut down the plant and led to the bankruptcy of its owner, Philadelphia Energy Solutions.
“The 2019 explosion in Philadelphia, just across the river from New Jersey, is a crystal-clear example of the danger posed by hazardous materials and the importance of the EPA’s 2017 Accident Prevention Amendments,” said Catherine McCabe, commissioner of the New Jersey State Department of Environmental Protection.
McCabe said New Jersey has its own precautions against chemical emergencies under the Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act but the new federal rollback may undermine the state law.
NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said EPA adopted the rule last November despite objections from some of the attorneys general. The agency later “ignored” supplemental comments from the prosecutors after the Philadelphia incident, he said. EPA did not respond to a question on whether it had ignored the prosecutors’ comments.
Grewal said the EPA’s action is “yet another deadly rollback” that has “gutted” safety protections for chemical accidents.
The 2017 amendments to the chemical rule were implemented mostly because of a Texas fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people. After that incident, regulated companies were required to submit to independent audits, explore safer technologies, and provide more detailed and timely investigative reports following chemical accidents.
But those measures were rescinded under EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP) because they were no longer “reasonable or practicable” in relation to safer technology, third-party audits and other areas, EPA said.
The changes were made, the agency said, to improve security, reduce “unnecessary and ineffective regulatory burdens” and eliminate a conflict with federal health and safety regulations.
“The changes are intended to promote better emergency planning and public information about accidents and continue the trend of fewer significant accidents involving chemicals regulated under the RMP rule,” EPA said in a summary of the measure.
The EPA went on to say it was better to improve compliance with regulations than to impose more regulations on plants that are “generally performing well in preventing accidental releases.”