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In 2001, an explosion at the Motiva Enterprises Delaware City Refinery caused a 1 million gallon sulfuric acid spill, killing one worker and severely injuring eight others.

In 2008, an aboveground storage tank containing 2 million gallons of liquid fertilizer collapsed at the Allied Terminals facility in Chesapeake, Virginia, critically injuring two workers exposed to hazardous vapors.

In 2021, the release of over 100,000 gallons of chemicals at a Texas plant killed two contractors and hospitalized 30 others. In addition to injury and death, workplace chemical spills and exposures contribute to an estimated 50,000 work-related diseases such as asthma and chronic lung disease each year, as well as nearly 200,000 hospitalizations.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created to reduce risks and hazards to workers, and to prevent incidents like these. However, following through on this promise has been another matter.

OSHA has regulated fewer hazardous chemicals than other federal agencies due to legislative pushback, and a long rulemaking process. Obama-era reforms moved regulations forward, yet many permissible exposure levels (PELs) for hazardous substances have not been updated since the 1970s. According to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, it takes OSHA more than seven years to issue a new standard.

To make matters worse, OSHA’s penalties against worker health and safety violators have historically been too small to ensure standards are met. According to David Michaels, former assistant secretary of labor, the typical OSHA noncompliance penalty is only $7,900.

After the Motiva spill, where a man was “literally dissolved” by acid, the penalties for violations of the Clean Water Act were 57 times larger than penalties for the death and injury of workers at the plant. While OSHA inspections lead to safer workplaces, inspecting every regulated facility once would take over 100 years at the current rate. By and large, OSHA has miles to cover in protecting workers from chemical disasters and other hazards.

Protecting workers from chemical disasters

We can more effectively protect workers through stronger environmental regulation in conjunction with occupational health and safety standards. As they stand, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations covering similar chemicals and public exposure levels are much stronger than those under OSHA, and they’re more often based on actual risk assessments than technical feasibility concerns.

One way we can enhance worker safety through the EPA: comprehensively regulate chemical aboveground storage tanks (ASTs), which are largely unregulated. Because of this, we know little about their quantity, condition, and contents nationwide. Yet, as illustrated by the disasters noted above, these tanks continue to fail, collapse, or are improperly managed, killing and injuring workers.

A recent report by Center for Progressive Reform analysts shows that, in the absence of any federal regulation of chemical ASTs, only 10 states have passed their own regulations (which range from registration requirements to more stringent spill prevention measures), leaving millions of workers at risk of unsafe chemical exposures. Even the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, the independent organization tasked with evaluating industrial chemical accidents, acknowledged that the lack of comprehensive EPA regulation of non-petroleum ASTs poses safety concerns.

Adding insult to injury, the risk of spills from unregulated chemical ASTs is increasing due to climate change. Analysis by the Center and our partners at Earthjustice and the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that roughly a third of facilities regulated under the EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP) face greater exposure to climate-related natural disasters, and therefore a greater likelihood of releases and emissions.

Many of these facilities have aboveground storage tanks that fall beyond stricter regulatory scrutiny, making them greater hazards for on-site as well as emergency response workers. Many workers have noted the shortcomings of the RMP program and have urged for greater regulatory oversight. In the face of worsening climate impacts, stricter monitoring and regulation of hazardous chemicals stored at facilities is all the more important for employees.

Stronger spill prevention and response requirements needed

Minimally, all chemical ASTs should meet the registration, reporting, construction, and maintenance standards currently required of petroleum ASTs. The EPA should also use its full regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act to not only regulate chemical ASTs and a greater number of facilities but also require each facility to plan for and implement measures to prevent hazards from growing climate-related risks.

Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA is required to develop worst-case discharge and spill prevention rules and regulations that diminish risk and harms of chemical spills. Until July 26, 2022, the EPA is accepting public comments on its proposed rule for worst-case discharge planning for facilities storing hazardous substances. While discharge planning must be accompanied by spill prevention to effectively protect workers and public health, this is a welcome first step.

The EPA has the responsibility to protect those most vulnerable to hazardous chemical releases. This necessarily includes workers at these facilities.Additionally, Black and Latino workers face greater likelihood of chemical exposure and workplace fatalities. Beyond greater coordination between OSHA and the EPA, strengthening key regulatory programs under EPA authority constitutes an immense potential safeguard for workers left to the wayside.