The volunteer firefighters who ran toward danger and perished in the West fertilizer plant explosion in 2013 deserve more from our leaders in Washington, D.C. While the community of 2,800 is doing its best to rebuild and honor the heroism on display that day six and a half years ago, one of the lasting tragedies is that the loss of life and incredible destruction of property caused by the explosion could have been so easily prevented with common sense and business-friendly rules for storage of volatile chemicals.
As it turns out, those provisions were drawn up after the tragedy, only to be repealed in a short-sighted gesture by the Environmental Protection Agency — just days before chemical explosions at a Port Neches chemical plant forced evacuations and a massive response by firefighters and hazardous-materials handlers.
Produced in January 2017, the so-called “Chemical Disaster Rule” required businesses that store dangerous chemicals to implement basic safety measures. For companies that make, use or store chemicals that can ignite or explode, the rule required a “root-cause analysis.” This means that if a fire or explosion has occurred, a chemical company’s management must try to find out why it happened and propose ideas to best prevent the event from happening again.
Another repealed protection was the requirement that any dangerous chemicals be stored in a way that prevents them from catching fire or exploding. A third protection that was eliminated was the requirement to have a third-party expert look at a business’ fire and explosion practices and provide feedback on how those practices can be made safer.
Importantly, the EPA’s rollback last month also limits information available to the public — and first responders — about potentially dangerous chemicals being stored at any given business. Now only minimal protective regulations remain along with a provision that allows chemical companies up to five years to implement.
How did we get back to Square One? A small group of petitioners with the ear of the EPA complained that the measures are simply too costly. In fact, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler admitted the rollback in protections is a win for industry by reducing “unnecessary regulatory burdens” for industries that would save $87 million a year. The alarming frequency of chemical fires in Texas alone raises real questions about whether industry can self-regulate. Can such a “win” for industry be balanced against the real threat posed to first responders and the surrounding community? What price do we pay when a single firefighter dies unnecessarily?
Chemicals can be flammable and explosive — we all accept that. But if used or handled unwisely, they pose even more significant risk to life and safety. Survivors of chemical fires or explosions are left with some of the most difficult and painful types of injuries that humans can endure. First responders such as the volunteer firefighters who died that day in West are true heroes for the sacrifices they endure to protect us and our property. When a fire or explosion occurs at an industry site handling or storing flammable chemicals, the industry — just like all of us — depends on their expertise and selfless bravery.
Commonsense protective regulations do not overburden the chemical industry. Rather, such regulations were put in place after a tragic reminder of our vulnerability. I respectfully ask EPA Administrator Wheeler whether we would have firefighters — whether funded by taxpayers or volunteers — take out calculators before they choose to respond to a fire or put themselves in harm’s way to save a life. I suspect the families of those employed by the chemical industry see firefighters as brave Americans worthy of the best safety equipment and safety practices available.