Court Orders EPA To Implement Chemical Plant Safety Rule

Husky refinery EPA
Husky Refinery Explosion

In a stinging rebuke to the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal court has called EPA’s delay in implementing the Obama administration’s chemical disaster rule “arbitrary and capricious” and told the agency to implement the rule.

EPA had argued that delaying the rule would reduce industry confusion while it figured out whether it wanted to modify or rescind the rule. The court, noting that the Clean Air Act clearly limits such delays to three months, rejected the EPA’s reasoning. The decision means that EPA can no longer delay enforcement of the rule. So far, only provisions regarding local emergency-response coordination requirements are in effect, while other provisions come into effect in 2021.

We have written frequently here about how issuing standards and regulations designed to protect workers, consumers and the environment is a long and difficult process.  Rescinding or even delaying these legal protections is also difficult because an agency is required to justify its actions and provide evidence showing why the previous regulations are no longer needed. And despite all the fanfare that former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt received for being the deregulator-in-chief, the corners he cut have come back the haunt the Trump Administration’s efforts to undermine the laws that Congress passed to protect people from preventable workplace and environmental hazards.

According to Mike Wright, Director of Health, Safety and the Environment for the United Steelworkers union, who successfully sued the agency, “The decision clearly shows that EPA – and by implication OSHA and other federal agencies – can’t just delay a rule protecting the American people on a whim, or to do the bidding of some outside group.”

Background

Following a number of chemical plant disasters, including the 2013 explosion at West Fertilizer that killed 15 people and destroyed much of the town of West, Texas, President Obama issued an Executive Order that, in part, ordered EPA to reconsider its Risk Management Program (RMP). In January 2017, EPA issued a revised RMP regulation that enhanced requirements related to emergency response, provision of chemical hazard information, and requirements for facilities to consider inherently safer processes, as well as post-accident investigations, more rigorous safety audits and improved training.

“The decision clearly shows that EPA – and by implication OSHA and other federal agencies – can’t just delay a rule protecting the American people on a whim, or to do the bidding of some outside group.” — Mike Wright, USW Director of Health, Safety and the Environment

Provisions of the 2017 rule related to clarifying regulatory definitions were scheduled to come into effect on March 14, 2017. Other provisions, including most local emergency-response coordination requirements, were supposed to become effective on March 14, 2018. The requirements for emergency response exercises, public information-sharing and post-accident public meetings, third-party audits, more rigorous post-incident analyses, and safer technology requirements are not scheduled to become effective until March 15, 2021.

The Trump administration, under then EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, delayed enforcement of the rule three times, the last time by issuing the “Delay Rule,” which delayed enforcement of the rule for 20 months while the agency decided whether to modify or rescind the Obama rule. (The EPA did, in fact, issue a proposal to rescind most provisions of the Obama rule last May. That process is not affected by this decision.) A number of organizations, including the United Steelworkers union, sued EPA, arguing that “The Clean Air Act (CAA) is explicit that reconsideration ‘shall not postpone the effectiveness of the rule,’ beyond a three-month period.” A number of other environmental and community groups joined in challenging the delay, along with a number of states.

A Mockery of the Statute

The court found that EPA’s delay rule “makes a mockery of the statute” because it  violates the paragraph in the Clean Air Act that requires EPA rules to “have an effective date, as determined by the Administrator, assuring compliance as expeditiously as practicable.” The court writes that “The Delay Rule does not have the purpose or effect of “assur[ing] compliance”; it is calculated to enable non-compliance.” And the EPA did not consider the delay’s effect on the requirement to “prevent accidental releases,” to “minimize . . . consequences of any such release,” to “protect human health and the environment,” and “to include procedures and measures for emergency response after an accidental release.”

The court criticizes EPA for basing the delay on a bunch of “alleged ‘security risks’ and other hypotheticals raised by industry” without actually explaining why the implementation delay was necessary.

The court also mocks EPA’s explanation that the delay is intended to avoid confusion among the regulated community and local responders who would have to comply with a rule that might later be changed, when it is actually EPA that’s causing confusion “by the almost two-years’ reconsideration it desires in order to decide what it wants to do.”

EPA is also ignoring the express interest of Congress Congress which expressly stated that it wants compliance with rules “as expeditiously as practicable” and therefore  provided “a strict limit of three months on stays of effective dates pending reconsideration” in order to keep any reconsideration from delaying a final rule.

Arbitrary and Capricious

The court found the EPA’s delay rule to be arbitrary and capricious first, because it didn’t explain why it couldn’t revise (or rescind) the rule while the rule was in effect. Second,the Delay Rule didn’t provide a “reasoned explanation” why the original effective date and compliance dates were unjustified, despite the fact that the EPA in the original Obama rule had gone to great lengths to justify the compliance dates and consider comments from the public. EPA also failed to explain “why the detailed factual findings [in the Obama rule] regarding the harm that would be prevented upon implementation of the Chemical Disaster Rule are now only ‘speculative.’”

The third reason the court found the Delay Rule to be arbitrary and capricious is a favorite of mine. The court found that the EPA’s justification of the delay on “‘the timing’ of a finding by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms . . . that the West Fertilizer explosion was caused by arson’ rather than an accident…is not a reasoned basis for delaying the entire Chemical Disaster Rule.”

As readers of Confined Space are aware, in 2016 — days before the end of the RMP rule comment period — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), found that the fire that led to the catastrophic explosion at West was intentionally set.  (The Bureau used a highly criticized investigative process to make that doubtful finding, but that wasn’t the reason for the Court’s decision.)

The EPA partially based the Delay Rule on arguments made in chemical industry petitions to the EPA stating that they did not have enough time to comment on the BATF finding and if the cause of the fire was actually arson, that might have affected their comments and the final outcome of the rule, especially in the area of emergency response and provision of chemical information to responders and the public.

But the court rejected EPA’s reasoning — particularly as the argument impacted the emergency-response and information-sharing provisions of the Obama regulation:

Even were the court to agree for purposes of argument that the cause of the West, Texas disaster being arson is relevant to some of the accident-prevention provisions of the Chemical Disaster Rule, it is irrelevant to the emergency-response and information-sharing provisions, including those that have indisputably been delayed from the original March 14, 2018 effective date. Given that twelve of the fifteen fatalities in the West, Texas disaster were local volunteer firefighters and other first responders, this would be a fairly weak explanation for delaying provisions that EPA previously determined would help keep first responders safe and informed about emergency-response planning. (emphasis added)

The court also noted that the West disaster was not the only chemical plant incident that EPA cited to justify the original regulation, citing incidents in Hawaii, Colorado, Washington, California, Louisiana and the 2005 BP refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas.

Standing

One other feature of the court decision was that it granted “standing” to the United Steelworkers Union, allowing the union to sue the agency on behalf of its members who work in chemical facilities and live in communities surrounding the plants. As Wright explained,

The Court’s decision on the USW’s standing is especially important. The ruling clearly shows that unions have the right to defend their members, not only in the workplace, but in the broader community. And that’s a right the labor movement should always be exercising.

One final note. The decision notes that Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh was a member of the judicial panel at the time the case was argued but did not participate in this opinion.

 

Chemical Plant Safety Environmental Protection Agency

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