Other Voices: Chemical safety rules should not be weakened

Beaumont Enterprise

Here’s a vexing question for plant workers and people who live near chemical facilities: What’s worse, A) lax enforcement of existing regulations, or B) rolling back those limited guidelines? We guess the answer is B.

Unfortunately, last week brought more bad news from the Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump administration. The EPA is rolling back a series of chemical safety regulations approved in response to a 2013 explosion in West, Texas, that killed 15 people and injured more than 200.

The EPA believes the regulations provided potential security risks by disclosing plant inventories and facility locations to terrorists. The agency also says the costs of complying with these rules was too great for most companies, even though most of them are highly profitable in our booming economy that is especially friendly to producers of chemicals and plastics. Incredibly, the changes also allow companies not to perform third-party audits or root-cause analyses after an incident.

It’s also worth noting that these new rules weren’t rammed down anyone’s throat. Industry lobbyists were heavily involved in developing the guidelines during the Obama administration, taking more than three years to write them. The regs even had phased-in compliance over several years. Now all that work is erased.

This is not the way to ensure that dangerous chemicals and products are handled safely. It leads to shortcuts and compromises that can result in major problems. Most companies understand this danger and operate responsibly. But some don’t, like the fertilizer plant in West that was storing 80,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate close to homes and businesses. Investigators believe the deadly fire had been deliberately set, though firm proof of that theory is still lacking.

What is not in dispute is that accidents, spills, fires and explosions are hardly rare at chemical facilities. A 2015 investigation by the Houston Chronicle found there’s a major chemical incident in the greater Houston area every six weeks. Some have been severe, like the 2014 chemical leak at a La Porte plant where four workers died after being exposed to methyl mercaptan.

Environmental activists estimate that 120 million people live fairly close to chemical facilities, including many right here in Southeast Texas. Those people now have a few new reasons to feel uneasy.

Today's Bible verse

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

— Isaiah 7:14

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