What the Public Isn't Allowed To Know Could Kill You

July 30, 2014

You'd think that if U.S. chemical facilities could be used as weapons of mass destruction by terrorists, the government would do something about it. You'd be wrong.

The federal government — not only Congress but agencies under administrations of both parties — has done very little to protect the public. Instead, they have focused efforts on keeping the public from knowing about the mass-casualty threats chemical facilities present to neighboring communities. And they've been keeping the public from knowing about the government's own failures to keep them safe.

Now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has signaled that it is about to revise a key rule governing chemical facility safety and security — known as the Risk Management Program (RMP). That rule, implemented in 1999, has not been comprehensively overhauled in 15 years.

During that time, there have been no serious attempts by foreign terrorists to kill people in the U.S. using chemical facilities. Instead, there have been a number of serious safety failures — like the ammonium nitrate fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, in April 2013 that killed 15 — that could have been prevented with better information. Many of the casualties in that disaster were first responders who had raced toward a fire unaware of the mortal danger it presented.

It wasn't EPA that tried to keep the public from knowing about the catastrophic threats from chemical facilities. It was Congress, working at the behest of the chemical industry. The Chemical Safety Information, Site Security and Fuels Regulatory Relief Act (CSISSFRRA), enacted in 1999, prohibited EPA from making public the "offsite consequence analysis" in each facility's Risk Management Plan (RMP).

The secrecy hasn't worked to keep anything secret, although it has arguably tamped down public pressure on government to make chemical facilities safer. The most alarming part of RMPs can only be read in special secure reading rooms. Yet one good-government group, RTK-Net, has compiled much of the available information into a database and published that online.

As a result of this and other data publication efforts, it is obvious which facilities present the most lethal threats to large numbers of people. The RMP rule requires facilities to submit five-year accident histories, and you can see just how many people have recently been killed or injured at each major plant. None of these incidents involved terrorism.

While oil and chemical refineries and terminals are indeed atop the high-hazard list, the dangerous facilities in a given community may often not be what you'd expect. The large amounts of chlorine stored at water and sewage plants can be a lethal threat to nearby populations. So, too, can the ammonia used at large refrigeration plants. And Congress completely exempted LP gas (commonly called propane) in the 1999 CSISSFRRA.

The underlying law requiring RMPs was a section (112(r)) of the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act. Yet that law only governs stationary facilities — leaving largely uncovered the 90-ton chlorine tank cars that often sit unguarded at rail sidings or the 100-car oil trains that rumble through densely populated U.S. cities.

EPA's possible revision to its RMP rule comes in response to an executive order (EO 13650) issued by President Obama on August 1, 2013, after the West, Texas, explosion.

EPA has not yet proposed a new RMP rule. It has not yet (as of today) even published in the Federal Register a request for information preparatory to drafting a proposed rule. It has merely announced informally that it will publish a formal request for information (RFI). Once it publishes that RFI, all parties will have 90 days to respond or comment.