The Pendulum Swings Back Again on Clean Air

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In June 1989, then-President George H. W. Bush proposed revisions to the Clean Air Act designed to reduce what were perceived as three of the largest threats to the environment at the time: toxic air emissions, acid rain, and urban air pollution.

More specifically, Section 112r of what became the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 required the EPA to publish guidance and regulations for chemical accident prevention by entities using compounds that posed the greatest risk of harm from accidental releases. These regulations were built upon existing industrial standards and codes, and required all companies that use certain listed, regulated flammable and toxic substances to develop a Risk Management Program (RMP) that included three essential components: a hazard assessment, including contemplation of worst-case scenarios; an emergency response program detailing public outreach, emergency medical care, and employee training; and a prevention program, setting forth precautions and monitoring protocols.

In 2017, after a 30-month study of existing RMP’s involving 1500 chemical accidents over a ten-year period resulting in more than 60 deaths, the EPA promulgated updates, requiring inter alia third-party audits, consideration of safer technologies, and enhanced emergency planning.

In 2019, however, the EPA, citing to concerns that the 2017 updates resulted in confusion and redundancy, walked some of the RMP modifications back, including third-party audits and disclosure requirements of some public chemical hazard information.

Now, the EPA has this month moved to restore the rolled-back RMP requirements of the 2017 amendments, and further strengthen them by including wider outreach to local communities and increased employee participation.

This change of heart has again been met with some skepticism, including American Chemistry Council spokesperson Scott Jensen, who is worried that the “new” regulations will depart from a data-driven analysis of problems and increase complexity, dampening compliance. Further, Jensen pointed out that RMP accidents have been trending markedly downward over the past several decades, irrespective of the most recent changes.