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Appeals Court Strikes Down Trump Admin’s Delay of Chemical Safety Rule

The decision is a blow to the administration’s efforts to scale back Obama-era regulations on the chemical industry

A chemical plant east of Houston.

A federal appeals court said an Obama-era chemical safety rule that has been delayed by the Trump Administration for more than a year must go into effect.

The “Chemical Disaster Rule,” as it’s been called, was originally proposed after the deadly 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.

The rule requires chemical companies to disclose more about risks at their facilities and forces them to share that info with local police and firefighters. But after pushback from the chemical industry, the Environmental Protection Agency stopped the rule from going into effect. The agency has also proposed a new safety rule, which critics say would be weaker.

The administration’s rollback efforts have drawn criticism from first responders, as NPR has reported:

“The entire community is responsible for preparedness. That means the entire community needs to understand the risks to the community,” Timothy Gablehouse, who leads a local emergency planning committee outside Denver, told the EPA panel [at a June hearing.] “The response does not begin at the 911 call.”

He and others cited the deaths of first responders in West, Texas as well as Hurricane Harvey-caused fires at the Arkema chemical plant outside Houston last year. Police and other first responders involved in the Arkema incident said they were exposed to toxic fumes partly because local officials didn’t have enough information about what was stored at the plant, and how to handle an emergency like the one that unfolded during the storm.

The American Chemistry Council, a major trade group, has supported the rollback, calling the Obama-era rule “misguided” and “hastily adopted” during the administration’s last days.

In its decision, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals calls the EPA’s delay of the rule “arbitrary and capricious.”

“The argument was that you can’t delay just because,” said Gordon Sommers, an attorney with Earthjustice, one of the groups that sued the agency for not implementing the rule.

Environmental groups are praising the court’s decision, saying it will protect people who live near chemical plants.

“In Houston, the people who live in the places with the most perils are mostly people of color and low incomes,” said Bakeyah Nelson, head of Air Alliance Houston, another group involved in the case. “They want their neighborhoods to be healthy and safe. This is a big win for them.”

In a statement, the American Chemistry Council expressed concern about the ruling.

“We’re disappointed in today’s ruling not to allow EPA to delay several problematic changes to the Risk Management Plan that could undermine the future success of this important program,” the group said. “We will evaluate the court’s decision and continue to work with the Agency to safeguard chemical facilities and protect communities.”

It’s not yet clear what the court’s decision means for the EPA’s pursuit of a revised chemical disaster rule. When asked about that, a spokesperson said the agency is “reviewing the decision.”

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Travis Bubenik

Travis Bubenik

Energy & Environment Reporter

Travis Bubenik reports on the tangled intersections of energy and the environment in Houston and across Texas. A Houston native and proud Longhorn, he returned to the Bayou City after serving as the Morning Edition Host & Reporter for Marfa Public Radio in Far West Texas. Bubenik was previously the...

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