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Coming Clean and EJHA networks turn out in force to EPA public hearings, calling for chemical disaster prevention

On September 26-28, 2022 the EPA held a set of public hearings on proposed changes to its Risk Management Plan rule, which regulates approximately 12,000 facilities that use or store hazardous chemicals nationwide. Our members, staff, and partners turned out in force to speak in favor of strengthening the rule to prevent chemical disasters. Here’s what they had to say:

 

Eboni Cochran, organizer with Rubbertown Emergency ACTion 

"I'm not a chemist. I'm not an engineer, and I'm not a physician. Who I am is a mother, wife, sibling and daughter living in a community impacted by a cluster of Title Five chemical facilities commonly referred to as Rubbertown. Residents have been adversely impacted by excess emissions explosions, fires, noxious odors, and acute and chronic illness and deaths, some of which they attributed to Rubbertown. …This RMP draft rule requires facilities with the highest hazard processes with offside impacts to conduct emergency response drills a minimum of every 10 years. 10 years. This means there's the potential for 20 year employees to have completed an emergency drill only twice in their careers…They should be required at minimum to conduct annual emergency response drills. An incident at one of the facilities could leave 1000s of people with chronic illness maimed or even dead. This should not be about the burden on industry because it's the cost to doing business. This should be about the human beings impacted by their toxic emissions.  The goal should be chemical disaster prevention. That is eliminating the threat. This is what people living at the fenceline need from you. We need you to bring us to the policy table, because we have first hand knowledge of how processes related to emergency response actually play out… I need you to realize that my family should not have to create bug out bags in the event of a chemical disaster.” 

 

Sandra Smithers, Executive Director, New Castle Prevention Coalition

“I'm here merely to ask that the EPA live up to its name, which is environmental protection- that it protects the environment that people live in. Families should not be made to choose between the community they love to live in, and their health. And that typically is what's happening in our communities. As Sarah referenced, we had a spill, in 2018, of ethylene oxide, and we were notified only because it created such a major disaster for Newcastle County, and backed up the traffic so terribly on the Delaware Memorial Bridge. However, the communities were never notified. I am totally in support of the communities being notified in real time. However, communities also need to know what to >do> when they are notified.” 

 

Katy Super, Program Associate for EJHA

“My friends Delma and Christine Bennett currently live in Lake Charles, Louisiana. They're powerful community advocates who have been working for environmental justice for over 40 years. In January of this year, the Westlake Chemical South facility, one of 37 RMP facilities in the Lake Charles area had an empty ethylene dichloride storage tank explode. The incident resulted in a large visible mushroom cloud of smoke, the shaking of buildings nearby, and a shelter-in-place order for the residents and over 7000 schoolchildren in the area. The community was unsure if noxious chemicals were reaching their homes, what chemicals they would be, and when the order would be lifted. How would you feel in that position, and how would you feel on the phone with a loved one in that position? Under the draft rule, Westlake facility will not need to complete a safer technologies alternative assessment. This is an outrageous oversight and needs to be corrected. EPA must mandate the analysis and implementation of safer chemicals and processes for all facilities.”

 

Stephanie Herron, National Organizer for EJHA

“If EPA wants to truly prioritize environmental justice, then you must prioritize protecting workers and fenceline communities by preventing chemical disasters.. What we've been asking you is roughly the same thing as what Congress instructed EPA to do over 25 years ago. Yet unfortunately, there continue to be on average 140 preventable incidents every single year. Our families, our co-workers, our neighbors, all of us need the EPA to do your job. The best way to prevent chemical disasters before they can occur is by reducing or eliminating the hazards in the first place by switching to safer chemicals, safer processes and technologies.”

 

Michele Roberts, National Co-Coordinator of EJHA

“As a former environmental scientist, I used to put my own personal body on the line going in and out of RMP facilities to serve not only the facilities, but equally the communities. I am now an advocate with these communities… No one should live in a high-risk area. No one should be educated in an area that's considered high risk. No one should be giving birth to a child in a hospital that's considered high risk. No one should be in churches, mosques and other places of worship, praying for safety and help in an area that's considered high risk. Enough is enough. If we really want to center environmental justice, we will prioritize precaution in the Chemical Disaster Rule.” 

 

Ana Parras, Co-Director of Texas Environmental Justice  Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S) 

“I want to tell you about an incident that personally I was involved in – and most of Houston was. From the period of March 17-20th of 2019, a fire broke out at the ITC facility. It's a petrochemical storage facility along the Houston Ship Channel with a capacity of 240 tanks that store 13.1 million barrels of petrochemical liquids and gasses, along with other byproducts. Over the course of the fire, a multitude of cities, including Houston, experienced toxic exposure by the tanks containing naphtha, toluene, xylene, gasoline blend stock and benzene. These exposures caused multiple shelter in place orders, closing of five school districts, including, charter schools and colleges and the closing of public parks. Harris County Public Health stated that the true damage will not show until years to come, based on multiple wildlife deaths, and exposure of thousands of people. Although the plume was no longer visible after March 20th, the issues continued with elevated levels of benzene spiking throughout the night, due to remaining chemical and damaged tanks leaching into the air and the surrounding area…This is what our communities and workers in these facilities deal with. Every time there's an upset. Communities have a right to know what they are living next to and what can happen after exposure. Our nonprofit was having to send out information in English and Spanish because many of our communities are linguistically isolated in these areas. We ask that the RMPs be strongly regulated, and should be made public, especially in the language of the demographic that surrounds these facilities.”

 

Maya Nye, Federal Policy Director for Coming Clean and advocate with People Concerned About Chemical Safety

“I’m here with People Concerned About Chemical Safety, an environmental justice organization in Kanawha Valley, West Virginia. We are dedicated to protecting the health and safety of all who live, work and study near hazardous chemical facilities. We formed in 1984, partially because MIC, the same chemical involved in the Bhopal disaster, was stockpiled in our backyard in the predominantly Black community of Institute, West Virginia in nearly four times the amount of what was released in Bhopal. I grew up and went to school about a mile away from the Institute facility. Many of my neighbors and mentors are not here today because they’ve either died, or are sick, or to be painfully honest, are tired of trying to convince the EPA and federal government to do their job to protect them… How many more incidents must there be before you require inherently safer chemicals and processes?”

 

Sarah Bucic, Policy Consultant, Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments 

“I've been a nurse for over 20 years. And we are a national coalition of nursing organizations and individual nurses working to promote health through addressing environmental health concerns. And we're here today to demand that EPA adopt the strongest possible rule to protect public health. Especially since the COVID pandemic. Many healthcare facilities are under- resourced and unprepared to handle the disruption a chemical disaster would create. And we're glad to see the current proposal restores the requirement for facilities to conduct a root cause analysis after an incident, but we remain concerned that the current provisions cover fewer facilities and processes than the 2017 rule. The current proposal also fails to include fenceline air monitoring and current air monitoring networks aren't adequate leaving community members uninformed about potential health threats. We urge the EPA to require RMP facilities to use real time fenceline air monitors and make this information available to the public. Current notification procedures are also inadequate with some community members not knowing about a release until hours afterward. This was the case in 2018 in my county in Delaware when there was failure to inform and communicate with locals regarding nearly 3000 pounds of ethylene oxide which leaked into the community. We ask that the EPA explicitly require RMP facilities to provide appropriate multilingual emergency response notifications to the entire community. As health care providers, we're working to promote patient and community health. And we really want the EPA to step up to their responsibility to regulate chemical facilities appropriately. Because while the chemical facilities have inherent risks, the accidents around them are preventable.”

 

Judy Robinson, Executive Director of Coming Clean

“My youngest is an artist, an athlete, and an A student.  His sister is much the same, yet, as a person with Down syndrome, her future, like her contemporaries with disabilities, is more at risk from the effects of toxic chemical trespass and the disruption of climate disasters… The chemicals manufactured, stored and processed at risk management plan facilities not only proportionately impact Black, Latino, and low-income families. They continue to have toxic impacts far down the line, reaching my family and yours.. People need access to information about the hazards in their communities. We need the EPA to publish this information, as they say they intend to do in an easily accessible format, in multiple languages on their website, without delay daily by no later than 2023.”

 

Beto Lugo Martinez, Executive Director of Clean Air Now

“We call on the EPA to require external hazard mitigation and zero emitting battery backup power systems. We don't need to rely on natural gas and the generators in a chemical disaster- we don't need natural gas to continue to harm us further. We also want to make sure that you expand and mandate Safer Technology Alternative Assessment for all facilities. We have many chemicals including ethylene oxide and hexavalent chromium being dumped on us. EPA should require timely community notification and real time fenceline monitoring in our communities. Our community members speak Spanish, so we need information that is accessible, we need language justice.. There is only one EPA regulatory grade monitor in our neighborhood… and your emissions inventories are misleading. When you allow industry to self-report, we have created a system where the polluting industry has more power than the EPA… Self-reporting and voluntary mandates perpetuate environmental racism.”

 

Dr. Fatemeh Shafiei, Director of Environmental Studies and Associate Professor of Political Science at Spelman College 

“From my research on chemical disasters, I can attest that the Bhopal tragedy was avoidable. Although we learned some lessons from Bhopal, we didn’t learn as much as we should have. Despite the requirements of the general duty clause, our environmental policies regarding hazardous facilities, for the most part, have remained reactive rather than proactive, corrective rather than preventative. Noting that the hazardous facilities are mostly located in minority tribal and poor communities and these communities are disproportionately exposed to the threat of chemical releases,  Environmental Justice needs to be taken into serious consideration as we try to strengthen the RMP… I urge EPA to require RMP facilities to integrate climate resiliency and mitigation and mandate measures such as backup power. I urge EPA to require facilities to assess safer alternatives, use safer technology and improve plant design.”

 

Jennifer Hadayia, Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston 

“We have worked to reduce the public health impacts of air pollution in the Houston area for over 25 years. One of our strategic priorities is the prevention of chemical disasters…There are members of my team at Air Alliance who live in the impact zone of RMP facilities. I have family members who work at RMP facilities. Recently my cousin told me that he worries about a disaster every day when he goes to work at an RMP facility in Baytown, but he feels like he can't say or do anything about it. Well, the EPA can…With the announcement of EPA’s new Office of Environmental Justice and Civil Rights over the weekend, the time has come for every EPA rule to explicitly mandate an evaluation of cumulative impacts on overburdened communities. This should happen in siting evaluations, risk management plan engagement plans, and permits in Houston. Rarely does one RMP facility exist alone. Most are in close proximity to each other, especially along the Houston Ship Channel, where communities of color and lower wealth are exposed to multiple sources of harm that would only be exacerbated during a catastrophic incident.” 

 

Jennifer Sass, Senior Scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council

“The list of covered chemicals should be updated as soon as possible. And it should be extended to include fertilizers as well as highly hazardous chemicals, as well as reactive chemicals. It should reflect cumulative impacts from clusters of RMP and hazardous non RMP facilities. Failure to do this ignores the threats that often converge in communities due to historic and continued racist and discriminating policies and practices that perpetuate economic and health and justices and result in cumulative impacts on individuals and population health.”

 

Steve Taylor, Program Director for Coming Clean 

“As you have already heard many times over the past decade, fenceline communities, facility workers, and a wide variety of experts have demonstrated conclusively to EPA that voluntary measures are not working to prevent chemical incidents. There is abundant evidence available to EPA of policies and methods proven to reduce and remove hazards. We are all very, very tired of telling the agency what it already knows but refuses to act on: that only requirements to remove hazards to the greatest extent feasible will start to reduce the deadly chemical incidents that continue unabated every week, every month, and every year.”

 

Darya Minovi, Senior Analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists

“At least 1/3 of RMP facilities nationwide are located in areas at risk of inland and coastal flooding, storm surge and wildfires… EPA must require facilities vulnerable to natural hazards to implement measures to prevent chemical disasters such as backup power systems. Without a requirement facilities may not be adequately equipped to prevent double disasters incidents where a severe weather event- which alone may be extremely damaging- catalyzes a catastrophic chemical disaster that can cause us compounding harm.”

 

Jessica Thomas, Campaign and Partnerships Manager in the Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists 

“It's critical that the public has access to relevant, timely and digestible information about the facilities around them…what they need to do in an emergency, how they need to prepare themselves. Simply telling people that they need to shelter-in-place and wait for instructions is not adequate… I also am speaking to you as a resident of South Carolina, a place where there are many paper manufacturing paper mills. I understand that the safer technology assessment is not required for paper mills. And I think that's a real failure in terms of how we need to be moving forward. In fact, the EPA Region and the EPA is working in Catawba South Carolina right now, with a paper mill that has been releasing noxious gas and affecting nearby residents… We need to move to a mindset of prevention, because one person being at risk is not acceptable.”

 

Antonio Tovar, Senior Policy Associate for National Family Farm Coalition, former Director of the Farmworker Association of Florida 

“Something that is very important to us is, first, Indigenous peoples, and the people who work in our fields. In the case of the Farmworker Association of Florida, language rights, language justice is very important. And we are thankful for the translators that are here. But many of the speakers have to be speaking very, very fast to provide their comments and hopefully they will submit also the comments, but we only have Spanish translation here, and we live in a very multicultural country, so I hope to convince the EPA to include other languages besides Spanish, which is quite important, but is not the only one. The Farmworker Association of Florida  works with a lot of Haitian Creole communities, and that's one of their struggles- that they don't have translations. The other thing, mentioned before, is that agrichemical plants are very important to include in the Risk Management Program because they are also very toxic. And in Apopka, we experienced this when the Tower Chemical SuperFund happened… The petrochemical and the agrochemical industries are only interested in providing for the shareholders and themselves, and are led by greed and not by improvement of the communities. So we welcome the EPA and the current administration to take this first step in the right direction. But we think that there is room for more improvements.”

 

Juan Parras, Co-Director of Texas Environmental Justice  Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S) 

“During Hurricane Harvey, when [facilities] were doing their shutdowns and startups… there were literally millions and millions of pounds of benzene released into our community. You could actually smell it from a distance. And we're always afraid in the Houston area that RMPs need to be more strongly regulated. Because there's too many in Houston and there could be a domino effect where we would be severely impacted, along with literally millions of people from Houston to Galveston…RMP information used to be very public, where we could take that information to our communities and tell them, ‘Look, you're on the fenceline. Not only have you been exposed to air toxics on a daily basis, but you also have a serious threat if this plant were to blow up.’ And I believe that this information should be accessible and publicly made to communities.”

 

Isabelle Chaudry, Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Progressive Reform

“In 2021, the Center for Progressive Reform co-authored a policy brief with Earthjustice and the Union of Concerned Scientists recommending several key regulatory changes to the RMP… Although the rule improves key protections noted in our 2021 brief, the draft rule falls short in significant ways. EPA should amend the rule to expand coverage of RMP regulations to certain facilities in areas exposed to high risks of wildfires, flooding, storm surge or coastal flooding, as well as two more substances and processes. The rule should also require facilities to install and maintain real time in near real time fenceline air monitors and share the data with nearby communities and officials should read reduce and replace hazardous chemicals and processes when safer chemicals or safer technology are available. It should provide emergency response notifications in multiple languages, evaluate and assess risks associated with climate and natural disasters related to hazards and adopt and implement chemical release prevention and safety practices that can respond to those hazards.”

 

Jamie McConnell, Deputy Director of Women’s Voices for the Earth 

“I'm here to request the EPA require all facilities regulated under the risk management program role to implement inherently safer chemicals and, and processes- because it would support the reproductive health of workers in the facilities it regulates, as well as communities who are living on the fence line of manufacturing facilities, as well as across the supply chain where they can do reproductive harm. RMP facilities are disproportionately located in communities of color and low income communities. And these communities also have disproportionate reproductive burdens. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to toxic chemical exposure. There's an abundance of research that shows that pregnant women who live close to pollution, like the ones at these facilities are at higher risk for developing hypertension, having low birth weight babies preterm. birth, birth defects and even maternal morbidity.. The EPA needs to mandate the transition to safer chemicals and processes for all facilities.” 

 

Arielle Flaherty, member of Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice 

“There are many people living in Delaware along the Route Nine Corridor who are exposed to more than one RMP facility within a one mile radius. Communities shouldn't have to worry every day about facing impacts from these facilities, especially cumulative impacts. Nothing in the proposed RMP rule explicitly addresses cumulative impacts. And these impacts are disproportionately experienced by environmental justice communities. The new RMP rule must require that facilities conduct a cumulative impact assessment in their evaluation and eliminate hazards identified. It is not enough to only identify hazards, but the EPA must ensure that facilities take further action and steps to curb these hazards to achieve a healthier future – one free of chemical disasters for all.”