NRDC & Partners: EPA Refuses to Protect Americans from Hazardous Spills

WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency has abdicated its responsibility to establish a rule on chemical spills from industrial facilities—a move it was required to take more than 40 years ago under the Clean Water Act and agreed to take in 2016 under the terms of a court-approved settlement. 

“Administrator Pruitt decided again today to side with corporate polluters over the public's health and safety--and especially the health and safety of people of color and low-income families,” said Michele Roberts, National Co-Coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance (EJHA). “Protecting our water supplies is an increasingly important priority for Americans, and this decision to do nothing about the countless toxic chemical storage tanks which might poison our water puts our communities at undue risk. Administrator Pruitt, in his short tenure, has already harmed people of color and low-income communities by allowing more pollution into our air and blocking rules that sought to prevent chemical facilities from exploding or leaking poisonous gas, and now is jeopardizing our drinking water by failing to adequately protect it from toxic chemicals."

“Charleston, WV, is still feeling the economic impacts of the 2014 Elk River chemical spill--which left 300,000 people without drinking water,” said Pam Nixon, President of People Concerned About Chemical Safety (PCACS).  “I still get a little nauseous when I remember that faint licorice smell that meant our drinking water wasn't safe.  Businesses in the area lost at least $61 million dollars because of this disaster, and I thought this would provide more than enough motivation to prevent a similar chemical disaster in the future.  Unfortunately, Administrator Pruitt's do-nothing approach for chemical storage tanks give me little reason to believe this won't happen again. This was an opportunity to restore American's faith in the safety of our drinking water, but instead, these rules leave us wondering when the next drinking water disaster will strike.”

“Scott Pruitt’s action today will seriously endanger Americans because he is refusing to protect communities affected by the hundreds of hazardous spills that happen each year,” said Erik Olson, Senior Director of Health and Food for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Millions of people—disproportionately low-income and people of color—live near industrial sites that pollute streams, lakes and drinking water sources.  Congress more than 40 years ago required protections from these hazardous spills. In the wake of the tragic Charleston, West Virginia toxic chemical spill in 2014, EPA consented to a court order to issue these standards. Today, the Pruitt EPA is brazenly refusing to do that.”


The Environmental Justice Health Alliance (EJHA), People Concerned About Chemical Safety and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the EPA in July 2015, alleging that the agency had failed to prevent these types of spills.

Spills of hazardous chemicals from industrial sites, including spills from above-ground storage tanks, can contaminate waterways, and harm communities.  Exposure to these substances can be dangerous and even fatal. In February 2016, EPA agreed in a court-ordered settlement to propose hazardous substance spill-prevention rules for industrial sites by this month, and to issue a final rule in 2019.

Last fall, EPA proposed requesting information from states about state-level spill-prevention regulations, the frequency of hazardous substances spills, and the effects of those spills.  EPA never finalized its request for that information. 

There are thousands of hazardous substance spills from industrial facilities each year that are not subject to any hazardous substance spill prevention rules, according to United States Coast Guard data.  Health effects from exposure to these hazardous substances 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.

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.

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The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.​

The Environmental Justice Health Alliance (EJHA) is a national network of communities of color, Indigenous communities, and low-income communities that are disproportionately impacted by toxic chemical hazards. EJHA works to address the multiple harms caused by the hazardous chemical and energy industries — including waste, pollution, and health hazards — and support community-based solutions that improve health and well-being. Visit us at

People Concerned About Chemical Safety (PCACS), located in Charleston, West Virginia, is the corporate successor to People Concerned About MIC.  PCACS serves as grassroots watchdogs to ensure existing environmental laws are enforced by government regulators at facilities in our communities.  We advocate for human rights relating to the environment and chemical safety through education; and promote environmental justice for vulnerable populations being disproportionately impacted by toxic and hazardous chemicals. Visit us at