Energy & Environment

‘Something Needs To Be Fixed Here’ — 3 Houston-Area Chemical Leaks In 1 Month Raise Calls For Faster Federal Action

A slate of proposed revisions to federal chemical safety rules could have prevented the leaks, but the changes have been stalled for years.

The LyondellBasell refinery, located near the Houston Ship Channel, is seen in Houston, Texas, U.S., May 5, 2019.

Three chemical leaks along the Houston Ship Channel this month have spewed foul-smelling odors into neighborhoods, forced people to evacuate their homes and, on Tuesday night, killed two workers and hospitalized 30 others.

A slate of proposed revisions to federal chemical safety rules could have prevented the leaks, but the changes have been stalled for years.

The 2013 explosion in the City of West, Texas, led to an interagency review of chemical safety regulations. At the time, Jordan Barab was the No. 2 official with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which began reviewing its "process safety standard" — a nearly 30-year-old slate of rules intended to keep workers safe around hazardous chemicals.

"OSHA determined that the process safety management standard was in dire need of modernizing, and put it on the regulatory agenda and started work on it," Barab said.

OSHA attempted to fast-track major revisions to the standard. That made Howard Shelanski nervous. He was administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which is tasked with making sure agencies follow the law when creating and changing regulations.

"In this particular case, we did note to OSHA our real discomfort with the process they were using," Shelanski said. "(OSHA) and the Secretary of Labor at the time decided this was of great public import — that there were possibly other places where explosions could result — so they really wanted to get this policy out there quickly."

OSHA was sued by the agro-chemical industry, and the agency had to follow the long-track process. Then the Trump administration took office and put the revisions on hold.

Now, the Biden administration is moving ahead with the process, but serious changes could still take many years. As Barab pointed out, OSHA took nearly two decades to issue rules protecting workers from silica and beryllium.

"I don’t think that the founding fathers of OSHA ever anticipated that it would take 10 to 20 years for OSHA to issue a new standard or to modernize an outdated standard," Barab said. "So, something needs to be fixed there."

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) actually did manage to update its chemical safety rules before the end of the Obama administration, but the Trump administration rolled back the changes.

Don Holmstrom directed the Chemical Safety Board's (CSB) Western Regional Office until he retired in 2016. The CSB is an independent federal agency tasked with investigating chemical disasters and issuing non-binding recommendations to prevent similar incidents. The EPA and OSHA both have failed to fulfill a number of recommendations from the CSB.

"(The CSB) is making recommendations often to some of the most powerful corporations in the United States, or even the world, and at the same time, having to make changes at the federal level with agencies that are more difficult," he said. "I would say it’s ‘mission difficult,' but it’s not ‘mission impossible.' There’s been very little progress."

On Wednesday, the CSB announced it was sending a team to the site of the deadly chemical leak at LyondellBasell's chemical plant in La Porte.

Holmstrom said the agency needs to move much faster to release the results of this investigation than it has in recent years — the CSB has 19 other active investigations into disasters dating back to 2016.

"Industry needs to learn what happened at the LyondellBasell plant," he said. "They can’t wait five years for prevention to occur and for information that others can learn from. So, I think changes need to be made to that agency."

The CSB currently has more active investigations than it does investigators, and four of the five seats on its leadership board have remained empty for more than a year.

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