The Beirut Disaster and U.S. Chemical Regulations
On August 4, 2020, one of the deadliest chemical disasters to date devastated the capital of Lebanon. 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate created an explosion with an equivalent force of 500 tons of TNT, killing 137 people and displacing over 300,000 people.  The real tragedy was that this disaster was entirely avoidable. 
The U.S. is no stranger to chemical accidents. In 2013, a plant in Texas-storing 270 times more ammonium nitrate than permitted-exploded, killing 15 people. This was one of several chemical accidents that prompted federal action to close the gaps in facility oversight. The Government Accountability Office recommended increased data sharing amongst federal and state agencies, as high-risk facilities were falling through local and state oversight.
As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implemented the Chemical Disaster Rule (CDR) in early 2017 to address prevention, emergency response, and community information. Immediately after, the Trump administration halted the start date and later reversed critical parts of the CDR with the Rollback Rule in 2019.
The urgency to address this issue declined since the Texas accident, and Trump’s EPA discreetly rolled back protections. With a fresh perspective coming off of the Beirut explosion, will the U.S. revisit legislation to prevent another chemical disaster?
Ammonium nitrate is an industrial and agricultural chemical that poses significant risks to the health and safety of surrounding communities. Chemical accidents release toxins into the environment polluting the air and water. The resulting “ground-level pollution” triggers several health problems and harms vegetation growth.
Environmental risks are amplified by the increasing severity of natural disasters due to climate change. “Double disasters” occur when a natural disaster causes a chemical disaster. During Hurricane Harvey, an unprecedented amount of rain flooded the Arkema chemical facility causing a fire and releasing toxic fumes. An investigation by the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) blamed a lack of planning and advocated for increased safeguards in preparation of natural disasters.
The most at-risk communities are minority and poor populations. “Fence-line communities”, or communities surrounding hazardous facilities, are comprised of African American and Latino populations 75% and 60% greater than the U.S. as a whole. The poverty rate is also 50% higher. These communities face the direct impacts of chemical accidents and resulting pollution. Additionally, facilities in predominantly Black and Brown communities have almost twice the number of accidents than white communities.
Not only are surrounding communities subjected to more pollution, but when a chemical disaster occurs, evacuations disrupt the residents’ lives. Schools must modify or cancel instruction, and adults must continue working while living in temporary housing. After the Arkema fire, 200 surrounding residents evacuated for a week, and 21 people sought medical attention from chemical exposure.
However, facility employees and first responders face the most life-threatening risks. The Occupation Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) current ammonium nitrate standard hasn’t been updated in 50 years, leaving employees exposed to immediate danger. In the Texas ammonium nitrate explosion, 12 of the 15 who perished were first responders. With the environmental and social risks of weak chemical regulations well-known and undisputed, how has the government responded?
The Government’s Response
The CDR was introduced in early 2017 and the Trump administration delayed its effective start date until February 2019. In Air Alliance Houston vs. EPA, the D.C. Court of Appeals held that EPA’s actions violated the Clean Air Act because rules can only be delayed for three months. In 2019, the EPA replaced the CDR with the “Rollback Rule” that removed key regulations including: conducting root-cause analysis after accidents, third-party audits for compliance reviews, requiring hazardous chemical information to be available to the public, and reduced required training for emergency response.
Since the original effective start date, chemical facilities and state regulators are without guidance in their regulations and compliance standards. In the interim, there have been 73 chemical accidents. The CDR’s purpose was to increase coordination between the local, state, and federal agencies so facilities that violate standards can be caught before a disaster occurs. In absence of federal coordination, state and local authorities rely primarily on their own rules and lack additional resources to effectively regulate. The Rollback Rule doesn’t address the problems that lead to disasters and keeps employees, first-responders, and fence-line communities in harm’s way.
Since the 2013 ammonium nitrate accident, 12 out of 19 CSB recommendations haven’t been addressed. In August 2020, congressional representatives called on OSHA to update its ammonium nitrate standards, specifically noting the Beirut explosion. The need to better regulate chemical facilities has never been more apparent. Will the government rise to the occasion?
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