For Scott Pruitt’s EPA, Preventing Chemical-Plant Explosions Is an “Unnecessary Regulatory Burden”

The survivors of the 2013 disaster in West, Texas, would disagree.

May 25, 2018
Remains of a nursing home (left) and apartment complex (center) after the April 2013 West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion (right)

Tony Gutierrez/AP/REX/Shutterstock

A massive fertilizer-plant explosion roiled the small Texas town of West in April 2013, killing 15, most of them first responders, and injuring 260 more. As part of the response to this tragedy, President Barack Obama issued an executive order directing the federal government to improve the safety and security of chemical plants. In January 2017, just days before Obama left office, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accordingly updated its 1992 Risk Management Program rule. It added new provisions designed to prevent disasters by (among other things) requiring facilities to analyze the root causes of any incidents and near misses and to reevaluate the use of certain chemicals and processes that are thought to pose the biggest threats to public safety.

Within a week, Donald Trump was in the Oval Office. And very soon thereafter, the chemical industry began vigorously appealing the update.

It took them more than a year, but at long last the best minds of the U.S. chemical industry have completed their self-serving analysis and presented their regulatory rollback wishes to Scott Pruitt. And—ever the dutiful servant—the EPA administrator fulfilled his end of the Faustian bargain by calling for this wish list to be codified, posthaste, as the law of the land.

Last Thursday Pruitt proposed to “rescind amendments relating to safer technology and alternatives analyses, third-party audits, incident investigations, information availability, and several other minor regulatory changes.” In an EPA press release, Pruitt is quoted as saying that the changes will “reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens, address the concerns of stakeholders and emergency responders on the ground, and save Americans roughly $88 million a year.”

That’s right: Pruitt thinks Americans should actually be grateful that he’s proposing to remove life-saving protections—which, remember, were enacted as a direct result of a deadly industrial disaster (which the EPA fails to mention in its announcement, by the way).

But don’t just take Pruitt’s word for it. Consider, too, the full-throated endorsement of Eric Byer, the president of the National Association of Chemical Distributors, who applauded the decision to repeal safety provisions as “common sense.” The previous rule, Byer says, “would have imposed significant new costs on industry.” Or take a moment to savor the words of Robert Helminiak of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates, who personally thanked and congratulated Administrator Pruitt on behalf of the organization he represents, adding that he “look[s] forward to working with the Agency on other issues of mutual interest.”

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You might assume that I had to scour the Internet in search of these quotes from industry bigwigs lauding the EPA’s actions. But it’s telling, not to mention highly discomfiting, that I didn’t have to look any further than the EPA’s own press release to discover these testimonials.

Stop and consider that fact for a moment. See it for what it is: a sad new milestone on our national path to perdition.

The administrator of the EPA has just proposed rolling back rules that would protect workers in chemical plants and folks living in the surrounding community. He has done so at the behest of the chemical industry—and is trumpeting this act of collusion in a press release. There’s no attempt to hide this stuff, to sweep it under the rug. This is the new face of regulatory capture, updated for the Trump era: proud, unabashed, and out in the open.

Here’s a name you won’t see on that press release: Tommy Muska. The mayor of tiny West, Texas, is most definitely not among those cheering the EPA’s proposal to make life easier, and profits bigger, for chemical companies at the expense of public safety. In a town the size of West (population: 2,880), pretty much everybody knew at least one of the people who perished that night five years ago. Muska knew them all. He also knew most of the hundreds of people who were injured and/or lost their homes.

You won’t read it in the EPA’s announcement, but here’s a quote Muska gave to a reporter from the Austin American-Statesman last week. “With all due respect to Scott Pruitt, he’s never lost 15 firefighter friends. I’m as pro-business as anyone, but some things are way, way, way more important than too much regulation, and that includes the safety of these chemical plants. If we don’t regulate this, it will happen again. I don’t want any mayor to have to go through what I had to go through, and the loss that people in this town had to go through.”

The EPA’s proposed rule, right now, is just that: a proposed rule. As such, its publication in the Federal Register will automatically trigger a 60-day public comment period, during which Americans can voice their opinions on the wisdom and propriety of the proposal. A public hearing has also been set for June 14 in Washington, D.C. No word yet on whether Tommy Muska will be there. I hope he is.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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