Fall 2014 Unified Agenda: What Health and Safety Standards Can We Expect in the Year Ahead?
by Katie Weatherford, 12/2/2014
- The fall agenda indicates that agencies expect to finalize several key health and safety rules in 2015, but other important protections will progress much more slowly or have been pushed far into the future.
- EPA plans to finalize several long-awaited rules over the next year that will restore and preserve our nation’s water resources by preventing toxic pollution, and will limit climate change-causing air pollution.
- While EPA’s agenda includes several meaningful actions, some rules needed to protect water quality will not move forward in the short-term.
- Based on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) fall 2014 agenda, we can expect only limited progress in worker protections over the next year.
- It is essential that the agencies finalize several long-overdue health, safety, and environmental protections over the next year.
Just before Thanksgiving, the White House quietly released the fall 2014 Unified Agenda, updating the status of public protections under development by agencies across the federal government. The fall agenda indicates that agencies expect to finalize several key health and safety rules in 2015, but other important protections will progress much more slowly or have been pushed far into the future.
Long-Awaited Public Health and Environmental Protections
The fall 2014 Unified Agenda indicates that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to finalize several long-awaited rules over the next year. These rules will restore and preserve our nation’s water resources by preventing toxic pollution, and will limit climate change-causing air pollution.
By the end of this year, EPA expects to finalize its coal ash waste rule, which is intended to address the disposal of toxic waste generated by burning coal. Coal ash has contaminated hundreds of rivers, lakes, and drinking water aquifers across the country. The agency first proposed this rule in 2010, but it then stalled until 2012, when a lawsuit from environmental groups compelled the agency to move forward. After several years of needless delay, EPA is on schedule to meet a court-ordered deadline for final action by Dec. 19.
In 2015, EPA plans to finalize its rule defining “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. The agency issued a proposed rule in April 2014 and has indicated in the fall 2014 agenda that a final rule is expected by April of next year. This rule has gained widespread support from business groups like the American Sustainable Business Council, whose members rely on clean water to run successful businesses, as well as environmental groups dedicated to protecting and preserving our nation’s waterways for future generations.
EPA will also take action to limit toxic air pollutants over the next year. Consistent with the fall agenda, EPA is on track to complete its review of the current ozone air quality standard, having announced proposed revisions on Nov. 25. The agency should have completed the review much earlier, but it was stymied by White House interference. EPA is now required by court order to issue a final rule by Oct. 1, 2015. However, the fall 2014 agenda indicates the agency does not plan to finalize the rule until November 2015, one month late.
EPA intends to finalize its long-delayed formaldehyde standards for wood products and a related third-party certification framework rule by February 2015. The law tasking EPA with issuing these two rules, the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act of 2010, required the agency to finalize new rules by Jan. 1, 2013. However, the agency did not issue the proposed rules by that deadline, in large part because of the lengthy “executive review” by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). Although Executive Order 12866 grants OIRA a maximum of 120 days to review rules, the office took more than one year to review the proposed formaldehyde rules and did not complete its review until May 2013, five months past the statutory deadline for a final rule. EPA’s ability to meet its February 2015 timeline is questionable since the agency has yet to submit its draft final rules to OIRA for review.
By mid-2015, EPA plans to finalize greenhouse gas emission limits for new, existing, and modified power plants. These rules would significantly reduce carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, which is a major contributor to climate change. The president’s Climate Action Plan directed EPA to propose a rule for new power plants by Sept. 20, 2013 and for existing and modified power plants by June 1, 2014. The climate plan also tasked the agency with finalizing the existing and modified power plant rules by June 1, 2015. According to the fall 2014 agenda, EPA expects to finalize the new power plant rule in January 2015 and the modified power plant rule by June 1. However, the agency’s agenda also suggests it will not finalize the existing power plant rule until July 1, one month past the deadline. Given that these proposals are major components of the president’s climate action plan, we hope EPA moves promptly to finalize these rules without delay.
While EPA’s agenda includes several meaningful actions, rules needed to protect water quality will not move forward in the short-term. The agency has extended its expected timeframe for finalizing a rule to require electronic reporting by facilities subject to the national pollutant discharge elimination system (NPDES) permit program. This rule would improve the accuracy of the data provided to EPA and would improve public access to water pollution information. The agency also has not provided a timeframe for taking action to address stormwater discharges from developed sites. EPA has listed this important rule under long-term actions in the Unified Agenda since spring 2013, despite an October 2008 National Research Council report finding that EPA’s existing stormwater program was likely failing to protect our waterways from harmful pollutants.
Essential Worker Health and Safety Standards
Based on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) fall 2014 agenda, we can expect only limited progress on worker protections over the next year. The agenda indicates that OSHA plans to propose limits to reduce worker exposure to beryllium in January 2015. OSHA missed the July 2014 completion timeframe specified in the spring 2014 agenda. OSHA also plans to finalize its rule to modernize and improve the recordkeeping and reporting of occupational injuries and illnesses by August 2015.
However, OSHA’s limits on exposure to silica dust, proposed in September 2013, will remain in the proposal stage. According to the fall agenda, OSHA plans to analyze comments on the silica proposal by June 2015, but the agency does not indicate it will finalize this critically important and long-delayed rule in the year ahead. Each year this rule is delayed, over 1,500 workers will suffer from adverse health effects from exposure to silica dust, including silicosis, a potentially fatal disease.
OSHA has also delayed action to protect workers from combustible dust. From 1980 to 2005, combustible dust incidents were responsible for 119 fatalities and 718 injuries, according to a 2006 investigative report conducted by the Chemical Safety Board. This rulemaking was listed in the “pre-rule” stage in the spring 2014 agenda, with a small business review panel expected to convene this month. Unfortunately, OSHA has moved the rule to the long-term actions category in the fall 2014 agenda and has delayed convening the review panel until February 2016. Given that the review panel process must occur before the agency even finishes developing a proposed rule, delaying the review panel for more than a year indicates that a final rule will not be issued for several years. In the meantime, OSHA’s delay leaves workers in harm’s way.
While agencies will continue to experience challenges, including stagnant or declining resources and an expected increase in opposition from industry and anti-regulatory lawmakers during the 114th Congress, it is essential that the agencies finalize several long-overdue health, safety, and environmental protections over the next year. We also urge the agencies to move forward on other important rules in the pipeline that are needed to protect the public, workers, and environment from preventable harms.