U.S. court orders Trump administration to enforce chemical safety rule

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Friday ordered the Trump administration to immediately implement an Obama-era chemical safety rule introduced in response to a 2013 explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas that killed 15 people.

The D.C. Circuit Court ruling was the latest to counter efforts under President Donald Trump, a Republican, to delay environmental regulations introduced by former President Barack Obama, a Democrat.

The court ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to implement the Chemical Disaster Rule, saying the agency did not have authority to delay the rule for 20 months.

The EPA cannot delay the rule “by invoking general rulemaking authority under a different statutory provision,” of federal clean air law, the court said in the ruling. “EPA’s action was arbitrary and capricious in any event,” the ruling by two judges on the court said.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, was a member of the panel but did not partake in the ruling.

In February, a federal court ruled that the EPA could not delay a regulation limiting methane emissions from oil and gas installations and this week a federal judge reinstated the Waters of the United States rule, which the Trump administration had delayed.

A week before Trump took office, the EPA issued the chemical safety rule, which required industries to take steps to prevent disasters. Those included more analysis of safety technology, third-party audits, incident investigation analyses and stricter emergency preparedness.

Former EPA head Scott Pruitt, who resigned last month under ethics allegations, had argued the rule posed unnecessary burdens. He introduced a proposal to rescind the rule, saying it would save Americans $88 million a year and better address potential security risks.

Supporters of delaying the rule had argued that because the 2013 explosion at the West Fertilizer Company was caused by arson that stricter measures would not have done much to prevent that kind of disaster, and postponing it would not harm safety. But the court said emergency-response measures and information sharing measures in the rule were pertinent.

“Given that twelve of the fifteen fatalities in the West, Texas disaster were local volunteer firefighters and other first responders, this would be a fairly weak explanation for delaying provisions that EPA previously determined would help keep first responders safe and informed about emergency-response planning,” the court said.

An EPA spokesman said the agency was reviewing the ruling.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group that was part of a coalition that brought the case, cheered the decision. “This is a victory first and foremost for the neighborhoods most susceptible to dangerous and toxic chemical releases,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Tom Brown