GOP Moves to Rollback West, Texas Chemical Safety Reforms

(NBC News)


By Mike Elk 

Since 2015, chemical safety activists had warned officials in the Obama Administration that if they didn’t quickly finish rulemaking on the EPA’s Inherently Safer Technology workplace-safety standard that an incoming Republican administration could block the rule from taking effect. Now, it seems their worst nightmare is coming true.

Last week, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) introduced Senate Resolution 28, which would use the Congressional Review Act to block the rule from taking effect. The bill is a companion to House Resolution 59 introduced by Markwayne Mullin (R-OK).

The IST standard would force 1,557 high-risk facilities in the EPA’s Risk Management Program to examine what hazards exist in their plant that could lead to fatal accidents. If cost effective methods to eliminate those hazards were available, the company would be required to adopt the appropriate technology or change in production process that they saw fit to eliminate the hazards posed. The new rule would also allow individuals, who live near chemical plants, to request information about the safety hazards in those plants.

Many workplace safety advocates believe that the Obama Administration’s IST standard is too lenient, as it relies on companies to report their own hazards and allows them to forego expensive changes. The rule also doesn’t require companies to make publicly available their IST assessments, which would allow unions and safety advocates to put pressure on companies to adopt those technologies. But even this standard is too severe for pro-business Republicans.

In a March 2015 letter to the EPA, activists warned that the Obama Administration must pass a rule immediately to prevent it from being blocked. However, the Obama Administration waited until January 13, 2017 to publish the final rule, thus opening the door for opponents to block it under the Congressional Review Act, which grants a 60-day window for Congress to stop a proposed rule from taking effect.

“This CRA resolution blocks an Obama administration midnight regulation that puts our chemical facilities, surrounding communities and our national security at risk, while doing nothing to actually improve safety,” Inhofe said in a statement. “By requiring chemical facilities to disclose to the public the types and quantities of chemicals stored there and their security vulnerabilities, the EPA is giving a blueprint to those who would like to do us harm.”

Activists blasted the move by Inhofe.

“As someone who lives within a community vulnerable to chemical plant explosions, I find it reprehensible that people charged with making decisions that affect our daily lives would choose to place us in greater danger,” said Eboni Cochran, co-coordinator of Rubbertown Emergency Action (REACT) in Louisville, Kentucky in a statement. “We have to deal with long-term exposures to toxic chemicals and the threat of explosions from chemical plants and rail cars. We need courageous leaders who will see each and every decision through the lens of the safety and well being of their constituents.”

Twenty-five groups that are members of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance have denounced the rule change. The groups plan to mobilize their members in the coming weeks to block Inhofe’s measure.

“After years of struggling to get stronger protections for families that live in the immediate blast zone or disaster path of chemical facilities, some members of Congress are now trying to not only block improvements to our safety, but also to prevent stronger protections from disasters for years to come,” said EJHA co-coordinator Michele Roberts in a statement. “If Congress allows these chemical safety improvements to be blocked they may end up being blamed the next time disaster strikes and Americans lose their lives.”

Mike Elk is a Sidney award winner and a lifetime member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild. He previously served as senior labor reporter at POLITICO, as an investigative reporter at In These Times Magazine, and has written for the New York Times. In 2015, Elk was illegally fired for union organizing at POLITICO and used his NLRB settlement to found Payday Report. 

Follow him on Twitter @MikeElk or email him: [email protected]

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter who covered everything from Lula & the Brazilian labor movement to major league baseball. He spent years covering union organizing in the South for The Guardian and was labeled by the New York Times as an "abrasive gadfly" for exposing within the labor movement. Raised in a UE union family in Pittsburgh, Elk was illegally for union organizing at Politico in 2015 and used his NLRB settlement to start the crowd-funded Payday Report. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and is fluent in both Pittsburghese and Portuguese, which he learned when attending journalism school at PUC-Rio de Janerio. Email: [email protected]

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