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A Halloween Message: Stop the Scary Safety Rollbacks

By David J. Hayes
October 31, 2019

Many (including us) have documented the administration’s serious assaults on the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and other core environmental protections. But we must not forget about safety, where the administration has a downright scary record.

Take, for example, how the administration’s eagerness to roll back key industrial safety measures is putting human life and the environment at risk:

  • The EPA unlawfully attempted to delay implementation of a Chemical Accident Safety Rule that upgraded safety obligations for major industrial facilities. After state attorneys general obtained a court order requiring the agency to implement safety improvements, the EPA brazenly moved forward with a new, severely weakened rule that would compromise safety by, among other things, dispensing with third party audits of safety plans and materially weakening accident and hazard investigations and reporting obligations.

    State attorneys general filed extensive objections to the proposed rollback, including supplemental comments noting that “since the submission of our Original Comments nearly a year ago, there have been over 60 publicly-known incidents at facilities regulated under the [Chemical Accident Safety Rule] across 26 states [which] led to at least two deaths, 77 hospitalizations, and four evacuations of nearby residents.” Further emphasizing the outrageousness of the EPA’s effort to flaunt its safety obligations, state AGs recently pointed to the Philadelphia refinery explosion to illustrate the real-life risks at issue, noting that “in a mere two minutes, over two tons of hydrofluoric acid – a chemical that is immediately dangerous to life or health at 30 parts per million – were released from a broken pipe during the accident, forming a ground-hugging vapor cloud that ultimately triggered the explosions.”
  • Remember the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 workers and triggered the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico? The Interior Department has weakened both the Process Safety Rule and the Well Control Rule that plugged significant gaps in offshore drilling safety requirements, even as it continues to entertain a significant expansion of offshore oil drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans. Based on the administration’s overriding interest in removing “unnecessar[y] [regulatory] burden[s] [on] the development of domestic energy resources,” the new rules abandon needed safety upgrades by, among other things, nixing design improvements for “blowout preventers” (the key equipment that failed in the Deepwater Horizon disaster), and removing the requirement that independent third party inspectors conduct safety reviews.
  • Despite serious, well-documented safety risks, the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has “affirmatively sought to roll back critical safety protections for high-hazard flammable unit trains that transport crude oil across the country.” A joint letter filed by state attorneys general with PHMSA on October 23, 2019, chronicles the administration’s serious safety failures, including: failing to complete a Congressionally-required study that addresses oil train flammability risks; the Transportation Department’s withdrawal of a 2-person train crew safety rule, despite evidence that such a rule may have prevented the oil train derailment catastrophe in Canada that killed 47 people; and DOT’s elimination of the requirement that trains transporting crude oil be outfitted with electronically controlled pneumatic braking systems.  

The Administration also has failed to address serious safety risks posed by exposure to harmful chemicals:

  • Despite EPA agreeing in 2015 that the pesticide, chlorpyrifos, that is widely used in the U.S. - including on more than 80 food crops - should be banned given the confirmed risks of serious adverse health impacts this administration has refused to implement the chlorpyrifos ban, putting farmworker and consumer safety at risk. State attorneys general filed suit against the EPA and won, but the agency has continued to flaunt its responsibility to pull this dangerous pesticide off the market - choosing the economic interests of the pesticide industry over the safety of workers and consumers.
  • 1,500 drinking water systems around the U.S. are contaminated with PFAS (per- and polyfluoralkyl chemical substances), potentially exposing more than 100 million Americans to chemicals that have been shown to cause cancer and other adverse health effects. State attorneys general have pushed the EPA to treat this safety threat as the emergency it is by updating screening levels and preliminary remediation goals; establishing a drinking water standard for PFAS chemicals; and designating PFAS chemicals as “hazardous substances” to facilitate their cleanup. The EPA continues to fiddle, compromising the safety of millions of Americans and causing bipartisan frustration in Congress and the states.
  • Products that contain asbestos and mercury pose acute safety risks to workers and consumers. Yet the EPA continues to allow many asbestos and mercury-containing products in commerce, prompting state attorneys general to sue the EPA under the Toxic Substances Control Act — even as the EPA perverts the Clean Air Act by proposing a new rule that could unwind current restrictions on mercury emissions from power plants. Likewise, in the face of confirmation that methylene chloride’s use in paint thinners can cause injury or death, the EPA has chosen to only ban its use in consumer applications, while continuing to expose commercial applicators and bystanders to methylene chloride’s documented dangers. 

While more can be said on this topic, the pattern is clear. Again and again, the administration is far more interested in reducing or eliminating common sense compliance obligations on industry, than in protecting the safety of workers, neighbors and communities from potential injury or death. Even on Halloween, these dangerous rollbacks are just too scary.

David J. Hayes is a nationally recognized environmental, energy and natural resources lawyer who leads the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center.