The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released recommendations on February 28, 2022, indicating the EPA should provide more direction to facilities for including climate change risks in their risk management plans (RMPs).
Many facilities that manufacture, use, and store hazardous chemicals are regulated by the EPA and are required to have RMPs in place to prevent and prepare for accidental chemical releases. Under the Clean Air Act (CAA), the RMP rule requires the EPA to publish regulations and guidance for chemical accident prevention. Facilities subject to the rule, including chemical manufacturers and water treatment facilities, are required to develop RMPs that:
- Identify the potential effects of a chemical accident.
- Identify steps the facilities are taking to prevent an accident.
- Provide specific emergency response procedures should an accident occur.
The GAO report found that more than 3,200 facilities are located in areas subject to climate change risks, including flooding, rising sea levels, storm surges, and wildfires, that increase the chances that a facility will experience an accidental chemical release.
The report recommends that the EPA assistant administrator of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance and/or the director of the Office of Emergency Management:
- Provide additional compliance assistance to RMP facilities related to risks from natural hazards and climate change.
- Design an information system to track common deficiencies found during inspections, including any related to natural hazards and climate change, and use this information to target compliance assistance.
- Issue regulations, guidance, or both, as appropriate, to clarify requirements and provide direction for RMP facilities on how to incorporate risks from natural hazards and climate change into their RMPs.
- Develop a method for inspectors to assess the sufficiency of RMP facilities’ incorporation of risks from natural hazards and climate change into RMPs, and provide related guidance and training to inspectors.
- Incorporate vulnerability of RMP facilities to natural hazards and climate change as criteria when selecting facilities for inspection.
- Incorporate the relative social vulnerability of communities that could be impacted by an accidental release when selecting RMP facilities for inspection.
In general, in the EPA’s reported response, the Agency agrees with the GAO recommendations.
Regarding recommendation #2 that the EPA should design an information system to track common deficiencies found in inspections, the Agency stated it agrees with the goal of the recommendation but does not believe the development of a database is necessary to achieve this goal.
“EPA believes it can use other methods to target compliance assistance, such as periodic consultation with Regional inspectors on a sector-specific basis to share information and findings,” the report states. “EPA has already identified priority sectors for increased focus as part of the current Chemical Accident Risk Reduction National Compliance Initiative, such as ammonia refrigeration, fertilizer distribution, and gas processing. Regular consultation with inspectors would allow EPA to identify common problems and develop targeted compliance assistance. EPA can also leverage information the Agency already collects in EPA’s ICIS and ECHO databases.”
Environmental advocate’s response to report
A press release issued by Earthjustice points out that the GAO report was issued the same week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), which warns of increased climate change risks from extreme temperatures, rising sea levels, and unpredictable weather patterns.
“Federal chemical disaster rules are lax and need to be strengthened to keep communities and workers safe,” Earthjustice says. “Hundreds of chemical disasters happen every year in the United States, clearly illustrating serious gaps in the EPA’s [CAA RMP] rule. The RMP rule regulates more than 12,000 industrial facilities in the United States, including chemical manufacturers, oil refineries, water treatment plants, and more. Roughly 177 million Americans live in a worst-case scenario zone for a chemical catastrophe, and these dangers disproportionately threaten communities of color and low-income communities.
“The RMP needs urgent rule changes that will prevent chemical disasters from happening in the first place, offset growing risk posed by climate change and mitigate the cumulative health impacts from hazardous chemicals that workers and fenceline communities experience daily,” the undersigned members of the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters say. “Workers and fenceline communities face a severe and ongoing threat to their lives, health, and well-being due to major gaps in EPA’s rules on hazardous chemical storage, use and industrial facility safety guidelines.”
Earthjustice reports roughly 5 percent of reported chemical “incidents from the last five years were caused by a natural disaster — likely more due to inadequate tracking, reporting, and public information.”
The EPA is expected to issue proposed updates to the RMP rule for public comment by September 2022, with a final rule expected by August 2023. EPA Administrator Michael Regan has already received a letter from more than 70 elected officials calling for stronger RMP rules accounting for climate risks. “A recent policy brief from Center for Progressive Reform, Earthjustice, and Union of Concerned Scientists found that EPA must eliminate hazards in order to prevent double disasters (from ‘natech’ or combined natural and industrial chemical incidents), require monitoring and collection of toxic air emissions data in real time, require back-up power and other safer operation and mitigation measures, boost involvement of workers and their representatives in preparedness and response practices and strengthen community access to advance notification, and expand RMP coverage to more chemicals and more facilities in areas prone to natural disasters,” Earthjustice adds. A Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2020 report, “A Toxic Relationship,” found that nearly 2,000 hazardous chemical sites will be vulnerable to climate risk in the coming decades.