Texas Republicans Helped Chemical Plant That Exploded Lobby Against Safety Rules
The French company that says its Houston-area Arkema chemical plant is spewing "noxious" smoke — and may explode — successfully pressed federal regulators to delay new regulations designed to improve safety procedures at chemical plants, according to federal records reviewed by International Business Times. The rules, which were set to go into effect this year, were halted by the Trump administration after a furious lobbying campaign by plant owner Arkema and its affiliated trade association, the American Chemistry Council, which represents a chemical industry that has poured tens of millions of dollars into federal elections.
The effort to stop the chemical plant safety rules was backed by top Texas Republican lawmakers, who have received big campaign donations from chemical industry donors.
Representatives from Arkema Americas and the American Chemistry Council did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In 2013, a West, Texas, chemical plant explosion killed 15 people, prompting the Obama administration to try to raise chemical plant safety standards (investigators later found the explosion was caused deliberately). In an executive order that year, President Obama proposed an overhaul of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Risk Management Program with the goal of increasing safety and transparency at chemical plants by strengthening existing regulations. The EPA said the enhanced rules would “seek to improve chemical process safety, assist local emergency authorities in planning for and responding to accidents, and improve public awareness of chemical hazards at regulated source.”
Arkema has six production plants in Texas and has received more than $8.7 million worth of taxpayer subsidies from the state. Arkema’s Crosby plant — which OSHA fined more than $90,000 for ten “serious” violations earlier this year and has spewed smoke in Crosby — appears to be covered under the existing EPA rules because of the kinds of chemicals it uses. While Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has given chemical companies legal cover to hide the locations of their EPA-regulated chemicals, the Associated Press reports that the imperiled Arkema facility houses large amounts oftoxic sulfur dioxide and flammable methylpropen, which required Arkema to submit a risk management plan to the agency — and which would have subjected the company to the strengthened safety rules.
However, those rules — which would have taken effect on March 14 — were blocked by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who as Oklahoma Attorney General demanded the rule be withdrawn. The move was a big win for the chemical industry that has spent more than $100 million supporting federal lawmakers since 2008. Among those who have received more than $100,000 from the industry are powerful Texas lawmakers including Sen. John Cornyn (R), Rep. Joe Barton (R), Rep. Pete Olson (R), Rep. Gene Green (D), Rep. Pete Sessions (R) and Rep. Kevin Brady (R).
“Will Likely Add Significant New Costs”
Documents reviewed by IBT show that Pruitt’s announcement followed a lobbying campaign by Arkema and its colleagues in the chemical industry.
In May of 2016, Arkema sent a letter to the EPA criticizing the proposed rule. One part of the letter said the rule’s requirement of independent risk management audits “will likely add significant new costs and burdens to the corporate audit process.” The company also took issue with the rule’s “Safer Technology and Alternatives Analysis” (STAA) requirements.
Those provisions would have required that companies consider using “inherently safer technology” that would encourage companies to “substitute less hazardous substances” and encourage firms to “simplify covered processes in order to make accidental releases less likely or the impacts of such releases less severe.”
“The additional requirement for STAA would be burdensome because there is no consensus methodology, definitions or standards for STAA,” the company told the agency. “Knowledge of ‘inherently safer technologies’ can vary greatly depending on the process being examined and the knowledge and expertise of the team performing the analysis. As a result, implementation of STAA would likely be inconsistent across companies.”
Federal records reviewed by IBT show that Arkema specifically lobbied on the chemical safety rules. In the first quarter of 2017, as the Trump administration was reviewing the rule, federal records show the company was lobbying on “EPA chemical regulations, including Significant New Use Rules and the Significant New Alternatives Policy program and EPA Risk Management Program regulations.” The records show the company directly lobbied the EPA and the White House on the issue. In the second quarter, federal records show Arkema lobbying the EPA and the National Economic Council on “EPA risk management program regulations.”
Of Arkema’s six production plants in Texas, five, including the Crosby plant, are near the coast and in the Houston area, raising the prospect of additional explosions due to flooding. The town of Beaumont, where there is a taxpayer-subsidized Arkema plant, has experienced severe flooding. Another plant is located in Houston, and two more, in nearby Pasadena, sit right on the Trinity Bay; one of these plants took in nearly $5 million in subsidies.
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COMMENTARY on the ABOVE by Rev. Dr. Sharon Kiesel
Problem Wider than Texas Republicans Being Lobbied by Chemical Industry
In my considered opinion, the problems are much larger than the Republican Party. All my scholarly and ministerial training has taught me that these issues are symptomatic of a systemic problem that is also spiritually based.
Lobbying groups for the chemical industry, as well as gas and oil, pharmaceuticals, and other industries, enjoy success because the laws have been crafted over many years to allow them to sway the politicians in favor of corporations. All politicians are susceptible because "money talks and is the root of all evil." Corporations truly have more rights than people. That is a democracy issue. Many (but not all!) companies don't care any more about the health and safety of their employees, their customers, communities around them, nor the environment...only their bottom line.
Watch the news and you'll see this scenario playing out across our communities over and over again. As my friend, Toni Temple, who was permanently disabled by chemical exposures told me, "This isn't systemic sin. It's systemic murder." This corruption and a justice system that supports it are part of a complex root problem that needs to be "fixed." I sense it might not get on the road to being fixed until an even larger number of people are harmed, making people angry enough to take to the streets in colossal numbers. This is certainly not to discount current efforts by many legal, environmental, research, and community rights groups already engaged in this process.
There is another huge issue here. In this age, we are "addicted" to fossil fuel, chemicals, and technology. Speaking for the MILLIONS who have been struggling with environmental illnesses over the past three decades, what we are doing is harming people's immune systems and will maim more in the future. At issue is the uncontrolled and untested release of chemicals into our environment. According to disability rights activist, Darrell Lynn Jones, sixteen percent of the U.S. population (51 million) are unusually sensitive to chemicals. Six percent of the population (19 million) are chronically ill and disabled by exposures. Look at how the health of people and animals living near fracking infrastructure has been destroyed and the toll the opioid epidemic is taking. Did you know that cell towers, microwave ovens, and electronics are silently disabling millions with electronic illness? As consumers, we each have a hand in propagating this, too. So when we point our first finger at others, three other fingers point back to us.
This is all very personal for me, as I fight for my life every day because of my environmental illness. And I "draw the line" morally when I see people (especially children), animals, and our water and food supplies being harmed. Consider what the prophet Isaiah had to say as a sinful Israel was about to be invaded by the Assyrians:
Isaiah 10: 1-3b (NIV)
"Woe to those who make unjust laws,
To those who issue oppressive decrees,
To deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
Making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar?"
“Societies will be judged by how well they took care of the least among them.”
-Dr. Michael LaChat, retired Professor of Ethics
Methodist Theological School in Ohio
(Used by permission)
Finally, Isaiah 10: 4b (NIV) hints of God's grace toward Israel in the midst of great human failings.
"Yet for all of this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised."
I encourage each of you to keep abreast of the news and educate yourselves about environmental health and how to protect yourselves and your families. Be prepared to act on a personal basis and wider, if you feel so compelled. These are truly life-and-death issues.
-Rev. Dr. Sharon Kiesel