As the country bears witness to the impacts of Hurricane Harvey, a storm unlike any other, the Trump administration’s policy of rolling back worker, emergency response, and environmental safeguards will all but ensure that victims of future flooding events will be exposed to toxic contamination.
Over just a 36-hour period, an estimated 9 trillion gallons of rainwater deluged Texas, affecting millions and displacing tens of thousands along the Gulf Coast and in Houston. As the rainfall and flooding wear on this week, emergency responders continue rescuing stranded victims from the floodwaters. News outlets have reported that these floodwaters have exposed thousands to sewage overflows, but far less noted is how severe floods also expose residents and emergency responders to toxic industrial contamination.
Oil and gas refineries – including the nation’s second largest – shuttered operations before and during Harvey, confirming years of warnings about the vulnerability of Texas’ oil and gas sector to hurricanes and other severe storms. However, closing operations does not prevent inundation of industrial facilities and the resulting risk of chemical spills, discharges, or toxic air pollution.
According to EPA data, there are 15,000 or more industrial facilities that were exposed to Harvey’s path in Texas, many containing regulated hazardous and toxic chemicals and waste. These 15,000 facilities account for just the number regulated under federal law; some hazardous materials are only regulated by state law or are not regulated at all.
The Trump administration’s deregulatory policies delay and roll back rules that aim to ensure the safety of emergency responders and increase their preparedness for exposure to toxic floodwaters. In June, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) delayed implementation of a crucial chemical facility safety rule until 2019 pending its reconsideration by the agency. The now-delayed rule would strengthen facility data disclosure and increase efforts to prevent releases and other incidents at chemical facilities in order to better protect emergency responders and fenceline communities.
More recently, the administration pulled the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) proposed “Emergency Response and Preparedness” rulemaking, which is also part of the same Obama administration effort to protect emergency responders from industrial plant disasters. The rule would sensibly update decades-old OSHA standards to reflect new chemical hazards and new safety practices already widely adopted by industry.
In August, the administration also pulled a proposed rulemaking to update and improve interagency coordination for emergency spill response. The “National Contingency Plan Revisions to Align With the National Response Framework” rule would have aligned the nation’s plan for responding to spills of “discharges of oil and releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, and contaminants” (National Contingency Plan) with the nation’s overall framework for “all-hazard response to domestic incidents” (National Response Framework). In other words, the rulemaking would have had the effect of streamlining response to hazardous chemical spills as part of the government’s overall emergency response effort to catastrophic incidents like Harvey. In effect, integrating the two plans had the potential to improve interagency coordination to respond to and protect the public and emergency responders from contaminated floodwaters.
The availability of and ability to effectively interpret information about chemical risk is another critical aspect to mitigating exposure to contaminated floodwaters. Here, too, the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda works against the safety interests of emergency responders and the public. As part of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, the EPA administers the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), which provides public-facing information about the type and quantity of toxic chemical discharges from industrial facilities. This information is a critical resource for the public to learn about and navigate sources of pollution in their communities and to identify possible exposure to toxic chemicals.
In 2015, the EPA granted a petition by the Environmental Integrity Project to require hundreds of natural gas processing facilities to report TRI data for hazardous chemicals, such as hydrogen sulfide, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene. Along Harvey’s path of destruction is one of the nation’s hotbeds for natural gas production and processing, the Eagle Ford and Haynesville natural gas basins. Last month, the Trump administration rescinded the rulemaking, “Toxics Release Inventory (TRI); Addition of Natural Gas Processing Facilities,” that would have required such disclosures.
At the same time, the administration has rolled back two proposed OSHA and EPA rulemakings to update and standardize chemical hazard classification and labeling. The “Update to the Hazard Communication Standard” and “Significant New Uses of Chemical Substances; Updates to the Hazard Communication Program and Regulatory Framework; Minor Amendments to Reporting Requirements for Premanufacture Notices” rules adopt an international system for chemical hazard classification and labeling. The rules would have ensured that workers and emergency responders could effectively identify and respond to the specific hazards of accidentally discharged chemicals, for example, whether or not the products are domestically produced or imported.
Beyond Trump’s policies that incentivize pollution, it bears repeating that the administration’s deregulatory actions on climate adaptation will put more people – and in turn, emergency responders – in harm’s way when it comes to flooding. The president’s executive order rescinding the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard will practically ensure that more federally funded facilities are built in flood-prone locations. Likewise, more industrial facilities could become sources of contamination for toxic floodwaters – think military bases or resource extraction facilities – and more vulnerable populations will find themselves in danger.