By David J. Hayes
January 23, 2020
In the corporate world, “EHS” — “environment, health & safety” — is a serious concern. Any company worth its salt pays attention to EHS issues because workers, customers and neighbors can be negatively impacted by a company’s poor EHS performance.
While EHS plays a key role in corporate America, EHS-related decisions made by federal, state and local governments carry an even bigger punch. When the federal government advances EHS values, every citizen can breathe easier — literally and figuratively. When it “deregulates” existing environmental, health and safety protections it puts all of us at risk.
Take, for example, the Trump administration’s latest proposal to remove restrictions on the use of repurposed rail cars for the bulk transport of liquified natural gas (LNG), including through heavily populated urban areas.
The administration’s own National Transportation Safety Board has come out against the proposal. The expert NTSB raised the alarm that derailments (which have been documented for the rail cars that would carry LNG) would pose potentially disastrous risks to life and limb, “given the potential hazards of LNG when released ... including fireballs, flash fire, and explosions from ground-level vapor clouds that may vigorously expand far beyond the point of release to an ignition source, cryogenic material thermal exposure hazards, and asphyxiation hazards for a colorless and odorless gas that lack sufficient warning properties.”
In detailed comments filed on January 13, sixteen state attorneys general reinforced their constituents’ safety concerns, emphasizing that lifting regulatory restrictions on LNG rail transport “would put the States’ residents, first responders and environmental resources at greater risk of catastrophic accidents, a dynamic which PHMSA has failed to adequately analyze just as it has failed to consider the environmental and climate impacts of allowing LNG to be shipped in rail tank cars.”
The LNG-by-rail proposal is part of the administration’s striking ambition to roll back multiple common-sense public safety requirements that save lives and reduce serious injuries. My Halloween commentary (in the October 31 edition of “Legally Spooking”) referenced an additional half-dozen misguided deregulatory initiatives that will, if successful, significantly increase citizens’ safety risks.
Safety rollbacks also raise serious environmental justice issues. Disadvantaged populations are often the first to suffer from industrial accidents in urban areas. Sky-high levels of benzene, identified weeks after last year’s Philadelphia refinery explosion, put residents of nearby lower-income neighborhoods at significant risk of cancer. All-too-frequent chemical plant accidents present similar risks. Nonetheless, the administration recently finalized a highly-criticized rule that reduces the safety protocols required of the chemical industry.
Finally, by removing restrictions on the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change, the administration is increasing Americans’ risk of acute and chronic health and safety hazards. By taking “deregulatory” actions that increase carbon emissions from coal plants, methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, and tailpipe emissions from the automotive sector, the administration is demonstrably shortening American lives — in addition to exacerbating climate change. Meanwhile, climate change-intensified wildfires, hurricanes and storm events are killing and injuring people here in America, and around the world.
The administration’s anti-regulatory agenda is not making Americans safe. Far from it.
David J. Hayes is a nationally recognized environmental, energy and natural resources lawyer who leads the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center.