Most Americans likely do not realize that there are thousands of facilities scattered throughout the United States that store large amounts of hazardous chemicals.
Some of these plants may be located in their own communities and history shows some of these facilities don't always comply with safety rules meant to prevent catastrophic accidents and chemical releases that have maimed or killed employees—and that could pose a hazard to people in the wider community.
Under the program, facilities using substances that posed the greatest risk of harm from accidental releases (dubbed RMP facilities) were required to develop and submit risk management plans meant to help mitigate the risk of catastrophic harms from accidents involving toxic chemicals.
Accidents in FocusPublic records obtained by the Data Liberation Project show that there have been 6,950 accidents (ranging from mild to severe) at a total of 21,286 facilities that store dangerous chemicals and either are registered with the EPA or used to be.
While the latest database (with records through June 2023) lists a total of 21,286 facilities, just over 9,600 of them had deregistered as of their latest risk management plan submission, bringing the current active total to 11,624.
When accidents occur at regulated facilities that store hazardous chemicals—and there have been roughly 4,000 over the past 20 years—they are supposed to notify the EPA within six months.
But while accident reports are supposed to be reported within half a year, records show that this isn't always happening.
Critics have pointed out that some companies don't provide a full record of accidents until their risk management plan is updated, which means that it can take years for some accidents to be disclosed since plans are updated every five years.
"EPA has found that many regulated facilities still are not adequately managing the risks they pose or ensuring the safety of their facilities to protect surrounding communities," the agency said in a statement.
The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story, but has been taking steps to bolster safety at regulated facilities that store dangerous chemicals.
Proposed RuleThe proposed rule (which concluded its public comment period in October 2022 and is due to enter into force in December 2023) would strengthen the existing risk management plan program by, for example, introducing new requirements for identifying safer technologies and chemical alternatives, and for more thorough incident investigations.
“When finalized, the rule is expected to make communities safer by reducing the frequency of chemical releases and their adverse effects,” EPA said in an August 2022 statement.
EPA's proposed new rule strengthens requirements that would address this delay through an enhanced information availability standard and community notification standards falling under emergency response provisions.
Specifically, the new rule proposes that facilities provide chemical hazard information upon request to residents living within 6 miles. Currently, facilities aren't required to do so.
Also, added community notification requirements have been proposed, whereby non-responding facilities would be required to develop procedures for informing the public about accidental releases.
The new rule would also impose a requirement for facilities to provide local emergency responders with chemical release notification data and have in place a community notification system for RMP-reportable accidents.
Another proposal is amplifying regulatory text to include the risk to facilities from natural hazards.
While environmental groups have praised the overall thrust of the proposed rule, some have said that closer scrutiny of the proposal reveals certain shortcomings including, perhaps predictably, ones relating to climate change and "environmental justice."
The lawmakers also called for tougher requirements related to assessing and planning for natural hazards and power loss.
Natural Hazard RiskFederal data shows that around 31 percent of these facilities are located in areas with natural hazards like wildfires and storm surges, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
"We found that EPA doesn't consistently assess how these facilities are managing risks from natural hazards," the watchdog said in a statement in February 2022.
The watchdog made six recommendations to EPA, including designing an information system to track common deficiencies found during inspections that encompasses shortcomings related to natural hazards and climate change.
Another GAO recommendation (the only one incorporated by EPA thus far) is to incorporate "the relative social vulnerability" of communities that could be impacted by accidental chemical releases.
Enforcement and Compliance InitiativeFurther, in a bid to reduce the likelihood of chemical accidents, EPA launched a national enforcement initiative in 2017 that sought to improve safety and increase compliance with risk management plan requirements.
As a result of these efforts, the agency concluded 3 judicial actions and 113 administrative penalty actions in 2022, roughly the same as the prior year’s 117 actions.
EPA also said it had increased its presence in the field and boosted on-site inspections by over 150 percent in 2022 compared to 2021.
EPA’s investigation of the facility was prompted by a series of accidental chemical releases, fires, and explosions at the Point Comfort plant between 2013 and 2016.
These incidents resulted in injuries to employees, including second- and third-degree burns and chlorine inhalation severe enough to warrant hospitalization. Additionally, they caused damage to property and the release of highly dangerous substances into the environment, according to EPA.
“This case demonstrates the importance of adopting and executing adequate chemical safety procedures to protect the safety of workers, the community and the environment,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer Lowery for the Southern District of Texas. in a statement.
Following the fire, EPA carried out an inspection and found that HollyFrontier failed to design and maintain a safe facility and inspect and replace heater tubes.
The company entered into a consent decree in 2020 with the federal government and the state of Kansas, requiring the company to carry out third-party compliance audits to ensure that it meets risk management plan requirements.
Separately, HollyFrontier also agreed to pay a $1.6 million fine to resolve violations found in 2014 and the 2017 fire.