Steelworkers sue Trump EPA to save anti-chemical disaster rule
Chemical Safety Board investigators inspect wreckage at the Tesoro-Anacortes refinery in 2010. | Chemical Safety Board

WASHINGTON—Imagine putting the lives and health of 177 million U.S. residents – one of every two – at risk. That’s what greens contend GOP President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency is planning to do, and the United Steelworkers (USW) have gone to federal court to stop the scheme.

At issue: An EPA plan to “amend” its Risk Management Program rule that, now, orders some 12,500 chemical-producing plants nationwide to plan and implement methods to prevent accidents, explosions and fires which release toxic chemicals into the air and water.

In plain language, to “amend” the plan means to trash it.

Some 177 million people live around those plants, environmental groups point out. And when fires and explosions at the plants occur, thousands of people and hundreds of workers – including Steelworker members – are poisoned, injured and sometimes die.

Trump’s EPA, at the behest of the industries that produce the chemicals, wants to toss the rule that forces the plants to protect people. On Jan. 9, USW filed suit in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia – which hears most cases involving federal agencies and their rules – to stop EPA’s scheme.

USW wants the judges to save the original rule, which orders firms “to take common sense actions” against chemical disasters.

In its suit, the union says Trump’s EPA “capitulated to industry demands” to junk key provisions of the risk management plan rule. EPA was working on risk management as a 2005 explosion and fire at the then BP-owned oil refinery at Texas City, Texas, released chemicals which killed 15 workers, all contract employees, and sent 100 area residents to hospitals.

Federal investigations showed no evaluation of the safety of the plant’s overall manufacturing processes for years and that BP had not done its safety job, either.

That 2005 explosion occurred at a time when U.S. refineries averaged an accident a week. There was a later fatal 2010 fire and blast at the Tesoro Oil plant in Anacortes, Wash. The BP blast led USW’s division representing oil workers to put forcing refinery safety at the top of its contract bargaining list. When the firms refused once, the union was forced to strike.

USW also lobbied EPA for the risk management plan mandate, which covers 12,500 U.S. plants and is supposed to help protect over half the nation’s population. Now Trump, in essence, wants to dump the risk management plan, the union’s suit states.

“Eliminating these requirements will allow a profit-hungry industry to police itself while putting workers, first responders and the public at risk,” said union President Tom Conway. “The USW spent years advocating for the Chemical Disaster Rule. Thousands of our members signed petitions imploring the EPA not to gut it. Now, we’re going to court to protect our members and our communities.”

The union wants the appellate judges to order Trump’s EPA “to implement the Chemical Disaster Rule as the EPA originally wrote it, before the current administration took office,” the union’s statement said.

Two recent “near misses” show the need for the original risk management rule, not Trump’s version, USW’s suit adds. One, highly publicized, saw USW members quickly move “to prevent a catastrophic amount of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid from escaping” during a plant fire and explosions in Philadelphia.

And in November, blasts at the TPC chemical plant in Port Neches, Texas, “forced tens of thousands of residents to flee their homes and threatened the livelihoods of USW members at the facility.”

“Too many workers have already been killed and injured in industrial disasters. Finalizing rollbacks to this rule — denying workers and communities crucial protections against fire, explosions and toxic emissions — makes no sense,” Conway said.

The Steelworkers aren’t the only group upset by the Trump EPA’s move.

“Gutting the risk management program will put the lives of millions of Americans in danger,” said BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director Jason Walsh. His group is a coalition of unions, led by USW and green groups, led by the Sierra Club.

Walsh called EPA’s rollback “reckless,” adding that it “further illustrates that this administration has little concern for the health and safety of workers and communities, and gives corporations free rein to act irresponsibly without consequence.”

And Trump’s EPA first suspended the risk management rule in 2017, just after the anti-environment Republican took over the Oval Office. EarthJustice and 12 other groups went to the appellate court to overturn the suspension. They won, after a year and 191 days. But in the intervening time there were 73 dangerous explosions that spewed out hazardous chemicals, EarthJustice reported.

“This administration is gutting the few protections we have against chemical explosions and other toxic disasters, just to appease chemical companies who only worry about their own profit,” the 13 groups said after the Trump EPA’s latest move to increase the risk of such fires and blasts.

“For the millions of families and children who live by chemical facilities, this is not about money, it’s about surviving chemical disasters. Lives depend on this rule.”

When word first got around of EPA’s plan to gut the risk management rule, in November, at least 30 House Democrats strongly protested to EPA.

“When the EPA finalized the Chemical Disaster Rule, it took concrete steps to strengthen community preparedness against chemical disasters,” they wrote to agency chief Andrew Wheeler, a former corporate lobbyist.

“This included modest but important incident prevention measures, improved emergency response coordination and planning, and community access to safety-related information. It is unacceptable the EPA would seek to roll back progress made to better protect the roughly 177 million Americans living and working within harm’s way of these RMP (Risk Management Plan) facilities.”

“Wrecking the risk management rule, they added, runs counter to the law’s mandate to protect lives and health and is being “done at the behest of industry petitioners,” the lawmakers declared.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.