Trump Administration’s Rollback of Chemical Disaster Rule Threatens Communities, First Responders

EPA refuses to implement new rules following deadly 2013 fertilizer plant explosion


By Michael Hardy

August 16, 2020

A scene from the explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, on August 9, 2020.

A scene from the explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, on August 9, 2020. | Photo by AP Photo/Hussein Malla


The massive ammonium nitrate explosion that devastated Beirut earlier this month has brought renewed attention to the danger of improperly stored chemicals. In fact, it was another ammonium nitrate explosion—the deadly 2013 blast at the West Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas, which killed 15 people—that prompted the Obama-era EPA to issue a series of tough new regulations collectively known as the Chemical Disaster Rule. Those regulations never went into effect because the Trump administration first delayed, then rescinded them, claiming they were too costly and, ironically enough, would make chemical plants vulnerable to terrorist attacks. 

Since 1996, chemical plants that use certain toxic or flammable substances have been required to file risk-management plans that disclose inventories of dangerous chemicals, worst-case scenarios, and proper emergency response procedures. After 9/11, fearing terrorists might use this information to target the plants, Congress made the risk-management plans almost impossible to access. But that meant that first responders, including those in West, often didn’t know what they were facing when they arrived at a chemical plant accident.  

The Chemical Disaster Rule addressed that problem by forcing plants to notify their local communities of any dangerous chemicals they were storing and to collaborate on disaster response plans. It also mandated third-party audits, “root cause” analyses after accidents, and the adoption of safer technologies and processes. The rule was scheduled to go into effect in March 2017, but, like so much else in America, everything changed with the election of Donald Trump. On the day he took office, Trump ordered a freeze on all new federal regulations. 

In response, Earthjustice sued the EPA on behalf of a coalition of 13 environmental groups to prevent it from continuing to delay the Chemical Disaster Rule. “These are life-saving protections,” said Earthjustice staff attorney Emma Cheuse. “First responders in these communities need these chemical disaster prevention measures in place.” In August 2018, the US Court of Appeals for DC ruled that the indefinite suspension of the rule “made a mockery of the statute” and ordered the EPA to implement it. Rather than appeal that ruling, the Trump administration opted to gut the rule entirely; in November 2019, it announced it was rolling back the most significant new protections.  

Just six days after EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the rollback, the need for such regulations became all too clear. In the early morning of November 27, 2019, a petrochemical plant owned by the TPC Group exploded in Port Neches, Texas. The explosion, likely caused by a leak of 1,3 butadiene, blew out front doors and brought ceilings tumbling down in hundreds of middle-class homes surrounding the plant. “It felt like the end of the world,” said Terri Gunter, who lives across the street from the 218-acre facility. Three workers were injured in the blast, and a man in the nearby town of Groves suffered a heart attack.  

Built in the 1940s, the plant had a long history of Clean Air Act violations, having paid over $100,000 in fines over the previous five years; at the time of the explosion, it was operating under a consent agreement with the EPA. Thousands of aging, poorly maintained plants like the TPC Group facility exist across the country. Between 2004 and 2013 alone, there were nearly 2,300 chemical fires, explosions, and toxic releases, collectively impacting nearly half a million people. Around 177 million Americans are at risk from a major accident at one of the 12,300 industrial facilities that file risk-management plans with the EPA.   

Neil Carman, the clean air director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, has read dozens of these risk-management plans. One of the scariest worst-case scenarios is for the DuPont plant in Ingleside, across from Corpus Christi on the Texas Gulf Coast, which stores 3.7 million pounds of hydrofluoric acid—an extremely toxic chemical used as a catalyst to make high-octane gasoline. “A catastrophic failure of that storage sphere could result in a deadly vapor cloud extending 25 miles downwind,” Carman said. “Hydrofluoric acid is a very deadly chemical because it easily penetrates the skin. And once it gets into the body, it’s a real challenge to save the person.” 

In June 2019, an explosion at a Philadelphia petrochemical refinery released over 5,000 pounds of hydrofluoric acid and sent truck-size pieces of metal shrapnel flying through the air. The Chemical Disaster Rule encouraged the approximately 50 petrochemical plants across the country that use hydrofluoric acid to switch to sulfuric acid, a safer alternative. But chemical companies have resisted the move because reconfiguring the plants would require temporarily shutting them down.  

Studies have shown that chemical plants are more likely to be built in African American and Hispanic neighborhoods and that people of color are disproportionately affected by industrial accidents. One of the plaintiffs in the Earthjustice lawsuit against the Trump administration was the West Virginia–based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. Board member Pam Nixon grew up in Institute, a predominantly African American community that is home to one of the state’s biggest concentration of chemical plants; she once had to go to the emergency room after an accident at one of the plants.

“The rollback of the Chemical Disaster Rule has really impacted us here,” Nixon said. “We have had a lot of chemical incidents, some major. Workers have died. There have been shelter-in-place orders. One of the major issues has been communication between first responders and facilities, and the new risk-management plan was going to improve that.”  

Texas environmental justice activist Bryan Parras grew up in Houston’s majority-Hispanic East End neighborhood, which abuts the Houston Ship Channel—the world’s largest concentration of petrochemical facilities. For Parras, who recently moved back into his childhood home, the issue of chemical plant safety is personal. “We have elementary schools right next to these facilities, neighborhoods next to these facilities,” he said. “How can we continue to let people live and go to school on a time bomb?”