Florida Propane Plant Explosion Highlights Exemption in Risk Management Program

On Monday night, explosions at a propane plant in central Florida injured nine workers, including five critically, and required the evacuation of residents within a half-mile of the plant. Though the exact cause of the incident is being investigated, the plant explosion raises serious questions about the need for more comprehensive risk management planning to inform and prepare communities near facilities with flammable chemicals.

The Blue Rhino propane plant, located 30 miles northwest of Orlando and about a quarter-mile from a residential area in Tavares, is stocked with 53,000 20-pound propane tanks, often used for backyard grilling. Reports indicate that there were also three 30,000-pound propane tanks at the facility that did not ignite in the fire. Tavares city officials said hoses designed to spray water on the large tanks in case of fire did not go off as planned. In reports, Tavares Mayor Robert Wolfe expressed surprise that the hoses had to be manually activated.

Under the Clean Air Act, facilities that handle toxic or flammable chemicals are supposed to submit Risk Management Plans to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These plans help local first responders prepare for accidents and help residents understand the chemical hazards in their communities. But the Blue Rhino plant has never filed a risk management plan despite having more than a million pounds of explosive propane stored on site. That is because a loophole in the law.

All propane was originally covered by the Clean Air Act’s 1990 requirements for Risk Management Plans. But in 1999, under pressure from industry for regulatory relief, Congress passed the Chemical Safety Information, Site Security and Fuels Regulatory Relief Act. Under the 1999 law, propane and other flammables are exempt from filing Risk Management Plans if they are stored for use as fuel or they are held for retail sale, even though large quantities of retail propane can be a danger to communities.

Propane plants pose a risk to communities in which they are located, and communities have a right to know about these hazards. The accident calls into question the scope of the Risk Management Plan program and the 1999 exemption.

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