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Don’t Be Surprised by the Explosion Near Houston. We’ve Cut Corners on Chemical Safety for Years.

Chemical containers at an Arkema plant in Crosby, a Texas town outside of Houston, exploded last week after the facility flooded from Hurricane Harvey’s landfall. While we can’t prevent natural disasters like Harvey from occurring, we can mitigate their consequences. Inherently unsafe facilities and operations can be redesigned, retrofitted, and ultimately replaced by manufacturing and storage facility changes that are safer. Unfortunately, the U.S. has chosen to take a less expensive and comprehensive approach to chemical safety, leaving us vulnerable to disasters like the one at Arkema.

There are two main approaches to safety in chemical plants: “inherent safety” and “secondary prevention.” The Arkema plant followed secondary prevention, which involves the strengthening of reaction vessels and pipes, the use of neutralizing baths, and the venting of toxic or explosive chemicals. This approach focuses on minimizing, but not eliminating, the consequences once a facility has already been seriously damaged.

Inherent safety approaches, on the other hand, seek to prevent major damage from occurring in the first place. Organizations following this approach design production and storage facilities with significantly smaller probabilities of untoward human and commercial disasters. The European Union has adopted a chemical accident prevention approach focused on inherent safety over secondary prevention. The U.S. has taken the other route.

In 1996, 12 years after the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, exploded, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) promulgated its first requirement that certain high hazard industries issue a risk management plan (RMP) to prevent chemical accidents. While this was a positive step, environmental and some chemical industry advocates urged the EPA to prioritize inherent safety approaches over secondary prevention. Regardless, the EPA caved in to massive chemical industry pressure and decided not to mandate inherent safety procedures.

In the ensuing years, of course, chemical accidents continued to wreak havoc. According to an EPA analysis of the period from 2004 to 2013, 12,500 chemical facilities reported 1,500 accidents that led to property damage, injuries, and deaths.

In January 2017, the EPA published the Chemical Disaster Rule, a revised set of more stringent requirements than the 1996 RMP. The revised rule would have enhanced protection for local first responders, community members, and employees from death or injury due to chemical facility accidents. These were positive steps for chemical safety. Yet in June, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt ordered a 20-month delay in implementation of the rule. Once again, the EPA chose to avoid the safer approach.

The rule’s more stringent provisions did not mandate inherent safety approaches, but did require designated operations to assess whether safety improvements were practicable. These improvements included storing fewer chemicals, using better tanks, and improving backup power systems, in other words, feasible, effective, and immediately needed improvements. The rule also had more stringent requirements for data accessibility and emergency planning in case of disaster.

No one is expecting chemical production, manufacturing, and storage to magically transform into a completely safe process overnight. But government at all levels should hasten the adoption of common-sense, inherently safer rules to save lives, and to protect businesses and communities.

Nicholas A. Ashford is a professor of technology and policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former chair of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health.