WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency will put in place new safeguards to help protect communities from dangerous chemical spills at tens of thousands of industrial facilities nationwide, under the terms of a legal settlement approved by a federal district court in New York.
The agreement is meant to strengthen protections as called for by Congress more than four decades ago.
“This is a tremendous victory for at-risk communities across the nation, but millions of people—who are disproportionately low-income and people of color—have had their water polluted while EPA ignored its mandate to protect the public,’’ said Richard Moore of Albuquerque, N.M., co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform (EJHA), a nationwide environmental justice grassroots network. “While the four decade delay is troubling, at last our communities can look forward to EPA providing these protections.”
EJHA, together with People Concerned About Chemical Safety (PCACS) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), sued the agency last July. The groups alleged EPA had failed to prevent hazardous substance spills from industrial facilities, including above-ground storage tanks.
The settlement between the groups and EPA, approved by the federal district court for the Southern District of New York, requires EPA to begin a rulemaking process immediately and to finalize spill prevention rules within three and a half years. The forthcoming protections will cover over 350 hazardous chemicals, and will apply broadly to tens of thousands of industrial facilities across the country.
There are thousands of hazardous substance spills each year from industrial facilities that are not subject to any hazardous substance spill prevention rules, according to United States Coast Guard data from the last ten years. Chemicals released in industrial spills can contaminate waterways, and exposure to these substances can be dangerous, and in some instances, fatal. These health effects are experienced disproportionately by residents of low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, where facilities that manufacture, store, and use hazardous substances tend to cluster. EJHA documented the disproportionate risk of catastrophic chemical releases faced by communities of color and low-income communities from 3,433 industrial facilities across the country in its 2014 report, Who’s in Danger: A Demographic Analysis of Chemical Disaster Vulnerability Zones.
“It is unfortunate that it took a lawsuit to get EPA to agree to set spill prevention rules,’’ said Pam Nixon, the spokesperson for PCACS, a community organization based in West Virginia’s heavily industrial Kanawha Valley. “Uniform federal safeguards for above-ground storage tanks and secondary containment will better protect not only public drinking water systems, but also the groundwater for households using private wells.”
In 2014, communities in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley experienced first-hand a major hazardous chemical spill, when over 10,000 gallons of a chemical used to clean coal leaked from a storage facility into the Elk River, just upstream from a large water-treatment plant that supplies Charleston its drinking water. The contamination deprived nearly 300,000 citizens of access to clean tap water for a week.
“It’s long past time for EPA to protect the health of residents near these industrial sites, and we urge the agency to adopt strong, protective standards to prevent future spills,” said Erik Olson, Director of the Health Program at NRDC.
A copy of the consent decree is available upon request.