Chemical disasters can be devastating to local economies. Just ask West Virginia businesses whose economy lost $19 million per day after the Elk River spill in 2015.
The EPA is now updating rules on chemical facility safety to minimize the impact of such accidents, but sadly, the planned changes will do very little to prevent chemical disasters. Instead, new chemical security rules should include prevention and information sharing in order to mitigate the risks.
Unfortunately, Elk River was no outlier. Of the 12,500 hazardous chemical facilities covered by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Risk Management Program (RMP), as many as 466 pose a catastrophic hazard to 100,000 or more people. That’s more than 100 million people in the U.S. who could be in harm’s way following another chemical disaster – some of which could make the Elk River spill pale in comparison.
Local businesses and economies feel the effects of these disasters. When drinking water is contaminated or communities are evacuated, even if for a short time, it forces many main street businesses to close, and in extreme cases, go out of business.
The EPA is now starting to address this, proposing some changes to the RMP rule. What the EPA has proposed, though, won’t address the root problems in the program, and won’t protect communities and businesses from dangerous chemical disasters. EPA needs to change course on this now, and ensure the rule offers a more proactive approach to prevent disasters, rather than just improving response after they have happened. And they need to do this before something else goes terribly wrong.
The current RMP rule has failed to protect businesses and communities and has not prevented major chemical releases and explosions. By the EPA’s own admission, there have been more than 1,500 reportable incidents during the past 10 years, which have killed 60 people, injured 17,000 more, and cost more than $2 billion in property damages alone.
Unfortunately, EPA’s proposed changes focus almost entirely on addressing facility safety after catastrophic chemical releases and explosions have already occurred. That means instead of working to improve public understanding of hazards and solutions through common-sense actions, and taking steps to actually prevent chemical disasters and the costs they impose, EPA’s plan would mostly limit their actions to cleaning up the mess afterwards.
Instead, EPA needs to be proactive – reaching out to businesses and residents with information on potential safety hazards and potential safer chemical alternatives that chemical facilities could be using, and getting them more involved in disaster prevention and recovery efforts.
Of course, this is just another government rule that will burden businesses, right? The thing is, it isn’t. In fact, when the EPA studied the potential cost-benefit analysis of the rule, the ten-year time frame it looked at didn’t include major catastrophes – like the West explosion, or a 1989 explosion at a Phillips facility in Pasadena, Texas, which killed 23, injured 150, and caused $1.4 billion in property damage and untold economic damage. That means the potential economic benefits of this rule could be greater than the EPA’s study – if a major disaster like that could be prevented.
We know what kind of damage dangerous chemicals can do if released into the community. And we’re not just talking about explosions; we’re also talking about chemicals leaking into their surroundings, like we saw in the Elk River. Businesses have been and will continue to be damaged by these preventable events across the country. In this case, EPA’s proposal lags behind what the business community wants, which is good rules and actions that prevent these disruptions to their businesses by transitioning the most hazardous facilities to safer chemicals.
Unfortunately, the way EPA is currently rewriting this rule won’t change that. Instead of a band-aid approach, EPA should focus on preparing for and preventing additional chemical-related disasters before they happen.
David Levine is co-founder and CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council, which advocates for policy change and informs business owners and the public about building a sustainable economy. This op-ed previously appeared in The Hill and is courtesy of American Forum.