Obama Administration Tightens Environmental Safety

  • (c) John Hoffman/Shutterstock(c) John Hoffman/Shutterstock

As US President Barack Obama’s days in office wind down and in the gap before the next president, Donald Trump, takes office on Jan. 21, 2017, the so-called “lame duck” is showing no signs of lameness. On the contrary, to the dismay of Trump supporters crying “foul,” over the past ten days the outgoing administration has been busy trying to render environmental legacy tamper-proof, while –in part through executive order – cementing rules long placed on the table for public comment but not yet being enacted by Congress.

In one of the most closely watched moves, in mid-December, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its long-awaited final report on the potential threats posed to drinking water by shale gas drilling. Its conclusions were not significantly different from the draft report published in June of this year but its conclusions were hotly debated by the opposite sides of the American political spectrum. The report, in which EPA did not conduct its own research but relied on expert opinion, was commissioned by Congress in 2010.

While in the initial draft the EPA said the scientific studies it compared had turned up “no evidence” that fracking as practiced in the US had led to “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources,” it said it had identified “vulnerabilities” in the water lifecycle that could impact drinking water. However, it said these were small, compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.  At the same time, the agency stressed that its findings were “not designed to be a list of documented impacts.”

According to the environmental watchdog, the lack of access to sufficient data, along with unspecified “uncertainties,” limited its ability to fully assess the potential impacts of fracking on drinking water resources. The data gap, it said, reflected the fact that information is either not collected or not made available by the industry. Alternatively, it is “difficult to aggregate.”

For one of the states where fracking is already widespread, the regulatory agency Texas Railroad Commission – which reports say had been considering tightening regulations – said the EPA paper shows that the rules are tight enough, provided exploration companies abide by them.

Other participants in the heated discussion over fracking were not satisfied with the environment agency’s conclusions.

If environmental advocacy groups thought the fracking assessment did not go far enough, the president-elect’s most vocal supporters slammed the EPA even more fiercely than critics did the previous draft, which they had largely ignored. The right-leaning journal The Rebel accused the agency of “showing its partisanship by changing the report to challenge Donald Trump’s pro-fracking energy advisors and (as new head of the EPA) Scott Pruitt, a man who has dedicated his career to fighting EPA regulations. All the EPA did,” the journal said, “was reword the original statement in order to make it sound scarier.”

Risk management for chemical plants upgraded

In other actions announced over the past week, the EPA finalized a rule amending its Risk Management Program (RMP) to reduce the likelihood of accidental releases at chemical facilities and improve emergency response activities – -under the Clean Air Act, covered facilities are required to develop and implement a risk management program. EPA said the move, like all others, was undertaken in consultation with industry, local and state governments and other stakeholders – in these cases designed to improve chemical process safety and assist local emergency authorities in planning for and responding to accidents as well as improving public awareness of chemical hazards at regulated sources.

Over the past 10 years, said Mathy Stanislaus, EPA's Assistant administrator for the Office of Land and Emergency Management, the more than 1,500 accidents at chemical plants caused nearly 60 deaths, while some 17,000 people were injured or sought medical treatment, and almost 500,000 people were evacuated or sheltered-in-place. The incidents caused more than $2 billion in property damages.

Stanislaus said the amendments are a “key action” item under an executive order issued by President Obama to prevent catastrophic accidents by improving accident prevention program requirements, enhancing emergency preparedness to ensure coordination between facilities and local communities along with better informing the public and facilitating third-party audits.

New pesticide and herbicide safety rules

In other news, the EPA said it will remove 72 ingredients from its list of inert chemicals approved for use in pesticide products. Agrochemical companies wanting to use these in future will have to provide studies or information to demonstrate their safety. The agency said it picked them from petitions by the advocacy groups Center for Environmental Health, Beyond Pesticides and Physicians for Social Responsibility. The groups had pressed for a rule requiring disclosure of 371 inert pesticide ingredients. Instead, the agency said it will evaluate potential risks of inert ingredients and reduce risks “as appropriate.” Many of the substances removed, it said, are on the list of 371 identified by the petitioners as hazardous.

Also in the EPA’s finalization phase are safety measures to prevent consumer poisoning caused by ingestion of the herbicide paraquat, which it said can also cause severe injuries or death from skin or eye exposure. Since 2000, the agency said, there have been 17 deaths, including three involving children, caused by – potentially fatal – accidental ingestion of the herbicide chemical. It said the accidents occurred because the pesticide was illegally transferred to beverage containers. As a preventative measure the EPA will now require closed-system packaging making it impossible to transfer or remove the pesticide except directly into the proper application equipment.

The measure also mandates special training for certified applicators as well as labelling changes to highlight the toxicity and risks associated with paraquat. To reduce exposure to workers who mix, load and apply the chemical ingredient, EPA is restricting its use to certified pesticide applicators. Paraquat is one of the most widely-used herbicides in the US, for weed control but also as a defoliant on crops prior to harvest.

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