Workers inspect an area outside a retaining wall around storage tanks where a chemical leaked into the Elk River at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, West Virginia, Monday, Jan. 13, 2014.
Steve Helber/AP Photo

Trump admin to roll back Obama-era chemical safety standards


Donald Trump and his team have long taken an unsettling approach toward chemical safety. In the Republican’s first year in office, for example, the president nominated Michael Dourson to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s office of chemical safety, despite the fact that Dourson had spent much of his career not only accepting money from the chemical industry, but also helping chemical companies fight against chemical safety regulations.

The issue clearly has not faded from the administration’s radar. The Washington Post reported late yesterday:

The Environmental Protection Agency weakened a rule Thursday governing how companies store dangerous chemicals. […]

Under the new standards, companies will not have to provide public access to information about what kinds of chemicals are stored on their sites. They also will not have to undertake several measures aimed at preventing accidents, such as analyzing safer technology and procedures, conducting a “root-cause analysis” after a major chemical release or obtaining a third-party audit when an accident has occurred.

According to Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who now leads Trump’s EPA, this decision was driven by counter-terrorism concerns. Of course, it’s worth noting for context that Trump’s first EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, pursued the same change in 2017 for reasons that were unrelated to national security.

Let’s also not forget what led to these safety rules in the first place. In 2013, there was a deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, which killed 15 people, injured more than 200 others, and leveled a significant part of a small town.

As longtime readers may recall, the public soon learned that the plant reportedly had no alarms, no automatic shutoff system, and no firewall. (We also learned that lax zoning laws allowed the explosive chemical plant to be built across the street from two schools and a nursing home.)

The Obama administration created new safety rules soon after. The Trump administration intends to roll those rules back.

In 2014, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) suggested that concerned citizens who want to learn more about the locations of potentially dangerous chemicals should “drive around” and ask assorted facilities what they’re up to.

This seemed pretty ridiculous at the time – Texans nevertheless elected him governor five months later – though if the Washington Post’s report is accurate, under Trump administration standards, “driving around” may not make much of a difference because “companies will not have to provide public access to information about what kinds of chemicals are stored on their sites.”