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U.S. Chemical Plants Are Ill-Prepared For Climate Change

A chemical plant operates on a cloudy day

A Government Accountability Office report found that chemical plants in the U.S. are not prepared for climate change. Of the 10,420 facilities the GAO analyzed, about 31 percent (3,200) are located in areas with natural hazards. 

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Risk Management Plan Rule requires certain chemical plant facilities to develop and implement a risk management program to detect and prevent or minimize an accidental release. The facilities are known as RMP facilities. These facilities include chemical manufacturers and water treatment plants. There were over 11,000 current and active RMP facilities as of December 2020. The risks from RMP facilities disproportionately affect minority and low-income populations, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2018 analysis. 

Chemical plant safety and the dangers of natural hazards

Natural hazards are a danger to RMP facilities because they may lead to accidental releases. Flooding could overwhelm tanks and pipelines, causing corrosion, severing pipe connections, and rupturing pipes. Wildfires could lead to power outages, affecting a facility’s safety. 

Climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. According to the World Resources Institute, heavy precipitation events have increased significantly throughout most of the U.S. Large floods are more frequent across the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, and northern Great Plains. The number of wildfires in the western U.S. has increased over the last six decades.

Water and sewage systems

The GAO found that 28 percent (2,893) of RMP facilities are located in areas that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) identified as moderate flood hazards. Around 23 percent (2,441) of RMP facilities are in areas with a higher annual chance of flooding. Almost half of the RMP facilities with the North American Industry Classification System code for “Water, Sewage, and Other Systems” are in areas with moderate or high flood hazards. Those facilities commonly treat water using chlorine, which can be deadly at high doses if inhaled.

Coal, petroleum, and refining

According to GAO analysis, about seven percent (746) of RMP facilities located along the Gulf Coast may be overwhelmed by storm surges from high-intensity Category 4 or 5 hurricanes. Almost 25 percent of RMP facilities with the North American Industry Classification System code designations for “Petroleum and Coal Products Manufacturing” or “Basic Chemical Manufacturing” are in areas that may be overwhelmed by storm surges from Category 4 or 5 hurricanes. Fifty-five percent are located in Texas.

Sea level rise

Less than two percent (155) of RMP facilities analyzed by the GAO are in areas that could be inundated if sea levels increase by one foot, and 133 are in areas where a typical high tide may currently flood. If sea levels increase by three feet, 208 RMP facilities may be inundated. Global sea levels are likely to continue rising by at least several inches in the next 13 years and by one to 4.3 feet by 2100. 

Wildfire

Around three percent of RMP facilities are in areas with high or very high wildfire hazard potential. Of those facilities, 61 of them are located in regions of California with high or very high wildfire hazard potential. 

A new RMP rule for chemical plant safety

The Trump administration rolled back safety rules in 2017 for chemical plants across the U.S. The Biden administration announced its plans to develop a new RMP rule. The EPA plans to issue the new final rule by August 2023, more than a year away as of this writing. Given that the frequency and severity of extreme weather events and natural hazards continue increasing, the time is now to develop and implement a new RMP rule. 

 

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

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