Trump Administration Gutted Safety Rules Ahead of TPC Port Neches Plant Explosion
Just a week before two explosions and a massive fire destroyed the TPC Group’s Port Neches, Texas petrochemical plant, the Trump administration moved to gut vital safety regulations intended to reduce the danger chemical facilities pose to workers and surrounding communities.
Regulations Inspired by West, Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion
The rules, which took the form of amendments to the federal Risk Management Plan (RMP), were adopted by the Obama administration in 2017 – four years after a deadly fertilizer plant explosion killed 15 people, mostly firefighters, and all but leveled the town of West, Texas.
Tragically, the crews working to extinguish the West, Texas fire had no idea the facility housed around 270 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate – significantly more than was used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Even the Department of Homeland Security, which regulates ammonium nitrate, was unaware that so much was being stored at the plant.
The RMP amendments became effective earlier this year, but only for a few months. On November 20th, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued revised standards that significantly weakened the Obama-era rules.
Trump Administration’s Regulatory Rollback Followed Industry Complaints
Thanks to the Trump administration, chemical companies will no longer be required to:
- Provide the public with information on the chemicals stored at their plants;
- Implement certain enhanced safety measure aimed at preventing catastrophic accidents and explosions;
- Conduct root-cause investigations after a major chemical release; or
- Obtain a third-party audit when an accident does occur.
While the current EPA administrator insisted the regulatory rollback was needed to address security concerns related to terrorism, The Washington Post pointed out that his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, suspended the RMP amendments during the first month of his tenure after industry interests complained they were burdensome.
While the industry is praising the rollbacks, environmental groups are concerned that the weakened regulations will leave chemical plants and refineries vulnerable to future explosions and other catastrophes.
“Given the EPA is first and foremost a public health agency, it is unconscionable that the Trump administration would gut key protections for emergency responders and people living near facilities that handle potentially dangerous chemicals,” Elena Craft, senior director of climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund, told the Post.
TPC Plant Explosion Update
The TPC plant explosions in Port Neches injured three workers on November 27th and forced more than 60,000 people in several southeast Texas communities to evacuate their homes through Thanksgiving Day. The resulting fire was contained that Friday, but smaller fires continued to burn on the property through the weekend.
High levels of butadiene – a known carcinogen – were detected near the TPC plant nearly a week after the initial explosion, resulting in the voluntary evacuation of Port Neches on December 4th.
Nearly two weeks after the disaster, work continues to remove chemicals from the TPC property. The facility will be closed for an extended period of time, but the owners have vowed to rebuild.
Unfortunately the TPC Port Neches explosion was the fifth major chemical disaster to impact southeast Texas this year, following incidents involving the ExxonMobil Baytown refinery, the ITC-Deer Park petrochemical storage facility outside Houston, the KMCO chemical plant in Crosby, and the ExxonMobil Olefins plant in Baytown.
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