EPA moves to undo Obama-era chemical disaster rules

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took steps on Thursday to roll back and delay Obama-era rules aimed at improving safety at chemical plants, which had come in response to a 2013 explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas that killed 15 people.

FILE PHOTO: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Appropriations Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing on the proposed budget estimates and justification for FY2019 for the Environmental Protection Agency on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt introduced a proposal to rescind the measures, saying it would save the industry tens of millions of dollars a year and “better address potential security risks.”

“The rule proposes to reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens, address the concerns of stakeholders and emergency responders on the ground, and save Americans roughly $88 million a year,” Pruitt said in a statement.

The proposal would also delay some of the compliance dates of the Obama-era amendments and cancel certain provisions that address accident prevention.

It was the latest in a string of Trump administration proposals aimed at rolling back environmental regulations put in place by former Democratic President Barack Obama, which industry groups have said added to their regulatory burdens.

In January 2017, before Republican President Donald Trump took office, the EPA introduced several changes to companies’ risk management plans they submit to the agency, including requiring more analysis of safety technology, third-party audits and incident investigation analyses and stricter emergency preparedness requirements.

Last February, the EPA received a petition from a coalition of chemical and energy industry groups, including the American Chemistry Council and American Petroleum Institute, to delay and reconsider the Obama-era amendments.

The explosion at the West Texas fertilizer plant killed 15 people, including 12 firefighters. Scores of others were injured and more than 500 homes were damaged in the blast, with total damaged estimated at more than $100 million.

The source of the explosion was ammonium nitrate stored in a wooden container at the plant, investigators said.

The EPA press release announcing the proposed changes to the Obama administration amendments, included a statement from the National Association of Chemical Distributors.

“The Obama Administration would have imposed significant new costs on industry without identifying or quantifying the safety benefits to be achieved through new requirements,” the lobby group’s president, Eric Byer, said.

The United Steelworkers union said in a statement on Thursday it strongly opposed the proposed rollbacks.

“USW members work in dangerous facilities that house huge quantities of hazardous chemicals. We are strongly opposed to this deregulation that endangers workers and their communities,” the group said.

The proposed rule will be open to public comment for 60 days and a public hearing on the rule is scheduled for June 14.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Peter Cooney