Photo: Johnny Hanson, Houston Chronicle staff
Photo: Johnny Hanson, Houston Chronicle staff

U.S. chemical safety rules need to be updated

Posted by Lauren Hertel on Saturday, May 27 2017


Mike Wilson

During 13 years of work as a professional firefighter, paramedic and EMT, I sometimes responded to an emergency at an industrial facility. If this required us to extricate a worker from a piece of machinery, we would start IV lines, administer morphine and oxygen, and pull the machine apart with hydraulic tools or carefully disassemble it.

At one commercial facility fire, we were preparing to force open an exterior door when an explosion occurred inside the building and a 55-gallon drum burst through the roof, landing in a nearby parking lot.

Sometimes we were called for a chemical spill, where dozens of workers were experiencing shortness of breath or other symptoms.

These industrial calls could be hair-raising: We had very little information about hazardous chemicals inside the building, and the facility owners rarely - if ever - invited us to train on their property. Arriving on scene, we often didn't know who was in charge at the facility; sometimes we faced locked doors as we attempted to access the emergency.

So I understand why the firefighters who responded to the April 17, 2013, report of a structure fire at the West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas, were standing in the blast zone when a stockpile of 50 tons of fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate detonated: They didn't know it was there.

And it's clear that several years earlier, the town planners didn't know it was there when they approved the construction of two schools and a nursing home less than 1,200 feet from the facility.

According to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board the detonation in West had the explosive force of 12.5 tons of dynamite. It took the lives of 12 firefighters and three residents, and it destroyed or damaged over 150 buildings. The explosion injured 260 people, yet had it occurred during the day instead of at 7:50 p.m., hundreds of school children would have been squarely in its path.

Most American companies no doubt run their operations responsibly. But West was not unusual: In the 10 years leading up to the explosion, there were 1,500 major industrial chemical accidents at U.S. companies, causing more than 17,000 injuries and 58 deaths, along with $2 billion in property damage. The record shows that our nation experiences a major industrial fire, explosion or chemical release every 2½ days.

So I was heartened to learn that this year, the Environmental Protection Agency had finally updated the safety requirements for these high-hazard industries. These requirements, known as the Risk Management Program, or RMP, were drafted 25 years ago following the Bhopal, India, chemical catastrophe, which killed thousands of residents in that town.

The updates make sense. They require companies to plan for emergencies with first responders and provide information to assist communities in making better zoning decisions. They require companies to learn from accidents so they don't happen again. While they're focused on preventing chemical disasters, they also improve the industrial emergency response systems on which we all depend.

I was surprised, therefore, to see Republicans pushing back. In Congress, a GOP majority attempted to use the Congressional Review Act to strike down the RMP updates and bar EPA from revisiting the RMP rules in the future, and then EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt delayed the updates for two more years.

To me, these actions suggest a lack of awareness among lawmakers in Congress about the dangerous industrial conditions that thousands of American workers, first responders and residents face every day.

With its updated rules, did EPA somehow overstep its responsibility to protect public safety and health? I don't think so. And I don't think most of us expected our representatives would work so hard to undo these kinds of basic protective measures.

Had the updated RMP rules been in place during my years in the emergency services, my co-workers and I might have been able to help companies prevent chemical accidents, and we certainly would have been able to respond more effectively and safely to those that occurred.

If Mr. Pruitt spent a day in the shoes of an American worker in these high-hazard industries, he would fight to implement the RMP improvements without delay. It's not hyperbole to say that lives are at stake.

The West explosion showed us how close to danger many of our communities and family members are. The risk is real.

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