On July 24, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a preview of its Request for Information (RFI) on revisions to its Risk Management Program, which tracks information and requires disaster prevention plans from potentially risky chemical facilities. The request represents the next step in the federal process to improve the safety of our nation's chemical plants, begun following the 2013 fertilizer facility explosion in West, Texas that left 15 dead and hundreds injured.

The RFI, part of a process required by an executive order that President Obama issued in August 2013, is the first step toward modernizing EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP). The program requires facilities that handle dangerous chemicals to identify potential risks to the surrounding community and create a prevention program. The request enables the agency to gather public comments on specific aspects of the RMP.

Once the request is officially published in the Federal Register, the public will have 90 days to submit comments. EPA will then review these comments and, if it deems appropriate, propose new standards for the RMP, providing another opportunity for public comments.

The RFI discusses several potential revisions to the Risk Management Program, including requiring an analysis of inherently safer technologies that would reduce or eliminate hazards to surrounding communities. For instance, a water treatment plant using highly dangerous chlorine gas as a disinfectant could switch to liquid chlorine or even UV radiation, reducing the risk associated with chemical leaks.

EPA says it will publish an alert and voluntary guidance documents to assist facilities interested in adopting inherently safer technologies. However, many public interest groups, including the Center for Effective Government and the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, argue that adoption of inherently safer technologies should be mandatory when technically and economically possible to minimize potential disasters. In the RFI, the agency responds to this view by requesting logistics on feasibility and enforcement of inherently safer technology standards but states it is not committed to rulemaking at this time. 

Although public interest groups want a firm commitment that EPA will adopt inherently safer technology standards, it is nevertheless encouraging that the agency is seeking further public comment on the issue. Thus it is important that individuals and communities concerned with preventing chemical tragedies in their communities make their voices heard through the RFI comment process.

Other promising aspects of the RFI include the agency’s request that comments “discuss any disproportionate impacts to communities near chemical facilities,” including low-income and minority populations. This suggests that EPA is aware of the environmental justice component of chemical risks and may take these concerns into consideration. EPA also requests input on the role of local communities in the inherently safer technologies analysis process for nearby chemical plants, signaling potential opportunities for greater transparency and community involvement.

Chemical industry lobbyists spend considerable resources seeking industry-friendly regulations. The Request for Information offers a crucial opportunity for individuals and communities to voice their concerns and push for public protections that put the safety of people first.

Details for submitting comments can be found in the opening pages of the pre-publication request

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