The day before Thanksgiving, residents of Port Neches and four nearby cities were preparing for the holiday when an explosion and subsequent fire at the Texas Petroleum Chemical facility prompted an evacuation order for 50,000 workers and residents.
Texans that live near chemical and industrial plants have experienced multiple incidents over the years, making this one in a long line of Texas’ industrial disasters.
In a particularly deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas in 2013, 15 people were killed and over 260 injured, prompting regulatory action at the federal level. The EPA’s Risk Management Program put new regulations in place to ensure the protection of fenceline communities and the avoidance of future incidents.
But in 2019, one week prior to the explosion in Port Neches, the federal Environmental Protection Agency signed a rule dismantling existing safety regulations.
The new standards put forth by the EPA removed several regulatory requirements, including major accident prevention provisions that required facilities to consider safer technologies, disclose chemicals stored at the facilities, and conduct a third party audit and root cause investigation after an incident occurrence.
Andrew Wheeler, EPA Administrator, stated that revising the Risk Management Program and removing much of its accident prevention provisions addressed security expert concerns that terrorists could identify where the country’s chemical stores were located, according to the Washington Post.
In a statement on the EPA’s decision, Wheeler told The Washington Post, “Today’s final action addresses emergency responders’ long-standing concerns and maintains important public safety measures while saving Americans roughly $88 million per year.”
Regarding the West explosion, EPA officials stated that because it was a criminal act rather than negligence on the part of the plant, the rules put in place would not have prevented the incident.
However, there are many Texans who have taken issue with the EPA’s decision.
Ron White, an independent environmental health consultant who has worked for groups such as Coming Clean and the Union of Concerned Scientists told the Houston Chronicle, “It’s disappointing but not surprising, it puts an estimated 120 million people who live close to these facilities at an increased risk because these relatively modest improvements were removed.”
Emma Cheus, an attorney with Earthjustice, said of industrial explosions that, “Those incidents show the need for full implementation and enforcement of the Chemical Disaster Rule, instead of repealing the prevention measures or weakening other safety measures. Trump’s EPA is rolling back the safety rules before communities have been able to receive the full benefit of the protections in this rule.
Currently, the EPA estimates that 177 million Americans live within proximity of a high-risk facility that stores potentially hazardous chemicals. One in three school-age children attend schools in range to be potentially affected by a chemical disaster.
Despite the initial cause for the amendments, the cuts made by the EPA significantly lessened measurement of toxic chemicals and environmental hazards and reduced the protection of American citizens.
Texas has the largest number of chemical facilities in the country, and some residents, like Ana Parres, co-executive director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, are concerned about what the recent rollbacks will mean for Texans’ public health.
In an Opinion piece for The New York Times, Parras said, “in Houston, we struggle to get chemical facilities to follow the law…We are denied basic health protections simply because the industry does not want to invest in our safety.”