Climate Change Threatens US Hazchem Plants

15.03.2022 - Climate change poses a threat to nearly a third of the hazardous chemical facilities in US, a new analysis by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says. The federal agency, tasked with assessing facilities at risk from rising sea levels, hurricane-like storm surges, wildfires or heavy rains found that 31% are located in areas prone to such natural hazards that may be worsened by climate change.

In its analysis of more than 10,000 factories, refineries, water treatment plants and other facilities that manufacture, store or use dangerous chemicals, the GAO found that while the Environmental Protection Agency  (EPA) requires that all have risk management programs (RMPs) it does not monitor all of them regularly and needs to provide more guidance.

In the recent past, some of the worst threats to US chemical plants have come from hurricanes, as the report notes. In 2021, Hurricane Ida caused leaks and power outages at production units along the Gulf Coast and even as far north as New Jersey. Along with the usual hurricane evacuations, in 2020, “tens of thousands of people” near Lake Charles, Louisiana, were forced to shelter in place after a local chemical plant was damaged and began leaking chlorine gas.

Flooding, the report said, is “by far the most widespread hazard.” Of 3,219 facilities seen to be endangered, more than 2,400 had a high risk for flooding, according to flood maps produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As the maps were drawn before the first signs of climate change became visible, in some places the risk may be even higher, the GAO said.

In all of the – in particular industrialized – regions, some are in more danger than others, the data analysts remarked. Socially vulnerable people, including poor people, indigenous people and Black people, are more likely to live near facilities that use hazardous chemicals.

In their report, the authors urge the EPA to prioritize inspections at plants located next to vulnerable communities that are at elevated risk from climate change. In response, the agency said it is now laying out a multi-year timeline for reducing climate-related risk to hazardous chemical facilities.

Fewer toxic chemical releases in 2019-2020

Meanwhile, the EPA has released its 2020 Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) National Analysis, which it said shows that environmental releases of TRI chemicals at facilities covered by the program declined by 10% between 2019 and 2020.

“EPA is encouraged by the continued decrease in releases of toxic chemicals reported to the Toxics Release Inventory,” said Michal Freedhoff, assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. “Making this information publicly available also incentivizes companies to reduce pollution and gives communities tools to act locally, particularly in underserved communities that have historically been disproportionately impacted by pollution.”

To assist communities with reducing pollution, the EPA is offering $23 million in grant funding opportunities for states and Native American tribes to develop and provide businesses with information, training and tools to help them adopt pollution prevention practices.

The environmental watchdog said the grants are a “critical component” of president Joe Biden’s Justice40 initiative that will provide “a meaningful benefit to communities impacted by legacy pollution issues.” The EPA added that it will administer the program to ensure at least 40% of the benefits are delivered to the targeted communities.

Author: Dede Williams, Freelance Journalist