A little over two years ago, 14 people were killed in a catastrophic explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. The blast leveled much of the Texas town, and in the two years since, over 400 chemical incidents have devastated communities across the U.S.
These events set the stage for a true drama that will play out in three acts over the next few months. The scene: Washington, D.C. The cast of characters: the President, Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy, the chemical industry, communities, and advocacy groups across the nation.
The first act began this week, when Administrator Gina McCarthy and her Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued what the EPA calls an “Alert,” a short document that lists the ways that companies can make their facilities safer. What’s at the top of that list? Inherently safer approaches.
Inherently safer approaches include things like using water instead of flammable chemicals, storing and using only the smallest amounts of dangerous chemicals instead of keeping large stocks on hand, and keeping pressure in pipes low enough to prevent blowouts.
If those examples seem simple to you, you’re right—inherently safer approaches are commonsense solutions to many of the risks chemical plants pose. A famous scientist once said, “What you don’t have can’t leak,” and that straightforward idea is the essence of inherently safer approaches.
The EPA made it clear in the Alert that inherently safer approaches are the best way to make sure chemical facilities are safe. However, the Alert itself isn't binding and doesn't require any facilities to start using the commonsense safety measures it outlines.
So, what will happen in Act Two? Will Gina McCarthy or President Obama emerge as heroes, overcoming the opposition and requiring chemical facilities to keep our communities safe?
Spoiler alert: there are no heroes in Act Two. The second act is merely another nonbinding document, called a “Guidance,” which will give detailed examples of ways that facilities can put these safety concepts into practice. But it will not require any dangerous facility to clean up its act.
Act Three is where the real drama begins: The EPA will propose a rule later this summer—a binding, enforceable plan to reduce the risks that come from living, playing, working, or driving near chemical plants. But the chemical industry won’t take this lying down. They will fight tooth and nail to keep commonsense safety measures out of the rule. Luckily, U.S. PIRG and our team of community members, local leaders, fire chiefs, parents, and teachers will be there to push back against the power of the chemical lobby – as will a broad and impressive coalition of groups working on this issue.
The end of Act Three hasn’t been written yet.
Will McCarthy emerge as the victor, with enforceable rules in hand? Will President Obama swoop in to save the day? Or will McCarthy and Obama succumb to pressure from the chemical industry and leave our communities to face the danger of chemical facilities on their own?
We’ll know soon enough.