Refinery Explosions Highlight Lack of Emission Reporting

Washington, DC, Oct. 17, 2019A massive refinery explosion that this week paralyzed much of the San Francisco Bay Area raised uncertainties about the contents of the massive chemical plume coating neighboring communities.  A new regulation requiring that regulators, responders, and communities be informed about chemicals released by industrial accidents, won through a lawsuit by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), has yet to take effect.

Tuesday’s tank explosion and fire at the NuStar refinery in Crockett forced nearby residents to shelter in place and closed the interstate for hours. First responders fought blazes that covered surrounding hills and threatened to engulf even more of the massive fuel tanks.

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Since 1990, the Clean Air Act has required the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), which is charged with investigating chemical fires and other accidents, to determine and disclose air pollutants accidentally emitted by any industry within its jurisdiction.  But the CSB never implemented this mandate until PEER and community groups obtained a court order earlier this year directing the adoption of this regulation by February 4, 2020.

“This latest accident underlines the importance of the right to know what chemicals are being discharged into the midst of communities,” stated PEER Pacific Director Jeff Ruch.  “First responders should also know the nature of the chemical fires they are tasked to contain.”

The PEER suit was filed in 2017 shortly after the Arkema chemical plant in Houston experienced chemical fires and explosions amid flooding from Hurricane Harvey.  First responders to the stricken plant did not know the dangerous properties of chemicals released. As a result, first responders and residents experienced adverse reactions and were hospitalized.

This is only one of more than 1,000 such industrial chemical accidents estimated to occur each year.  Refineries remain especially vulnerable, as nearly 95% of the 148 U.S refineries were built before 1985 with aging pipes prone to corrosive leaks leading to ignition.

Despite a February 4th court-ordered deadline for final adoption, the CSB has yet to release a draft. The Board itself has been riven with conflict and Trump has three times recommended its de-funding, which Congress has repeatedly rejected.  This year, Trump nominated his first appointee to assume the vacant chair of the CSB and she awaits Senate confirmation.

“We are concerned that there is still no sign that the CSB has taken the first step toward adopting a regulation that is supposed to be finalized within the next four months,” remarked PEER General Counsel Paula Dinerstein, noting that this regulation does not require White House approval and that PEER is preparing its own recommended version. “We had to go to court to enforce this mandate and will not hesitate to go back if needed.”

See court order for new regulation

Look at unaddressed catastrophic refinery risks

View weak state of U.S. industrial safety