Conservation and Biodiversity

Battling the Invisible Enemy: U.S. Chemical Spills Run Rampant

The need for stronger chemical safety regulations in the US is critical. Disturbingly, chemical disasters occur on average once every two days. This year alone, our environment has been ravaged by over 150 incidents, polluting water, air, and soil while jeopardizing human, biodiversity, and ecosystem health. These catastrophes disproportionately affect fenceline communities, predominantly consisting of marginalized and low-income communities. As the Biden administration has pledged to advance environmental justice for all, it is imperative we hold them accountable for their promise.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has initiated steps in the right direction, concerns are growing over their efforts being insufficient to prevent chemical disasters and adequately protect vulnerable communities. In August 2022, the EPA proposed the Safer Communities by Chemical Accident Prevention (SCCAP) rule, a revision to the Risk Management Program (RMP) applied to approximately 12,000 RMP facilities nationwide. The proposed revisions aim to restore several provisions made under the Obama administration in 2017, which is seen as a positive step.

However, closer scrutiny of the proposal has revealed various shortcomings. As a result, 49 Congress members warned the EPA the proposed regulations are inadequate to prevent chemical disasters in their districts. Addressing the risks posed by intensifying climate change and natural hazards is particularly crucial for driving meaningful change in chemical safety.

These urgently needed regulatory improvements have been a decade in the making, with earlier progress hindered by the previous government prioritizing the interests of the chemical industry. Therefore, now is the time to implement even bolder measures. The SCCAP rule, currently in the finalization stage and expected to be released by fall this year, presents a critical opportunity for us to demand more decisive actions.

Meanwhile, chemical disasters continue to occur at an alarming rate. In February 2023, a catastrophic incident unfolded when a train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, carrying cancer-causing chemicals. The derailment involved 38 train cars and resulted in a massive fire, forcing hundreds of nearby residents to evacuate. The toxic substances being transported — such as vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, and isobutylene — are widely recognized as highly dangerous materials. Vinyl chloride, specifically, has been linked to an increased risk of rare forms of liver cancer and other cancers.

The aftermath of the derailment left a trail of devastation. Residents of East Palestine are suffering from a range of health issues, including lung scarring, rashes, headaches, nausea, nosebleeds, disorientation, burning eyes, and numbness. Furthermore, Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources reported over 43,700 animal deaths within a 5-mile radius three weeks after the incident. Extensive decontamination efforts required the removal of 15,000 pounds of soil and 1.1 million gallons of water from the affected area. Even months later, the area still experiences lingering chemical smells, and displaced residents remain uncertain about the safety of returning home.

In another major disaster in March, a significant amount of toxic chemicals — estimated to be between 8,100 and 12,000 gallons — spilled into the Delaware River upstream of a treatment plant supplying drinking water to surrounding areas in Philadelphia. This incident posed a significant threat to the drinking water supply of over 975,000 people. The spilled toxic chemicals included butyl acrylate, the same substance spilled in the East Palestine train derailment, known to cause skin irritation, headaches, dizziness, and vomiting at high levels of exposure.

Philadelphia city officials issued a cautionary advisory to residents, urging them not to use tap water for drinking and cooking. Although the advisory was lifted quickly after tests showed no contamination, the incident triggered panic buying of bottled water. Equipment failure was identified as the cause of the spill, accounting for 49% of total chemical spills or unpermitted discharges between 2010 and 2019.

To ensure more comprehensive protection against chemical catastrophes, the SCCAP rule should incorporate four additional requirements:

1. Identify and mitigate climate risks:

Approximately one-third of hazardous facilities in the US are at increased risk from climate impacts without adequate preparation. The EPA must designate high-risk areas prone to chemical plant failures during natural disasters. These facilities should be required to develop plans to safeguard themselves and adjacent communities.

2. Safer Technologies and Alternatives Analysis (STAA)

All hazardous facilities covered by the RMP rule should conduct an STAA. The current draft exempts 95% of RMP facilities from considering and assessing safer chemicals and processes able to reduce hazards.

3. Recognition of workers and communities as partners

Workers and communities at chemical facilities possess valuable knowledge about plant operations. They should be granted stop work authority and the ability to anonymously report unsafe practices at their workplaces without fear of retaliation.

4. Information access and transparency

The EPA should maintain a publicly accessible RMP database and commit to delivering it in the shortest possible time frame. RMP facilities should improve outreach efforts to inform the public about hazards and emergency response plans during incidental releases.

Individuals have a vital role to play in demanding concrete actions and ensuring environmental justice for all. As the revisions to the rule near completion, we must seize this narrowing window of opportunity. Take action now to Invest In Our Planet and make your voice heard. Join the Earth Day community and become part of an impactful and impossible to ignore worldwide environmental movement. Together, we can secure a safer future for everyone.