A joint project of Coming Clean & the Environmental Justice Health Alliance
Chemical fires, explosions and toxic releases are shockingly common in the US. Communities of color and low-income communities are most at risk.
Across the United States, over 12,000 high-risk chemical facilities put 39% of the US population (124 million people) who live within three miles of these sites at constant risk of a chemical disaster. The full vulnerability zones for these industrial and commercial sites can extend up to twenty-five miles in radius. Many communities of color and low-income communities face disproportionate risk from these facilities, and often face other health hazards as well, such as high levels of toxic pollution, and higher rates of hospitalization and mortality from COVID-19.
But commonsense solutions exist that can prevent chemical disasters and protect workers and communities at the fenceline.
The EPA’s Risk Management Plan (RMP) Rule regulates these 12,000 high-risk chemical facilities nationwide and is currently being updated. Coming Clean and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform (EJHA) are mobilizing a broad coalition of stakeholders to demand a stronger rule that will protect workers and communities, and prevent chemical disasters.
By State Representatives Attica Scott (KY) and Larry Lambert (DE)
"For decades our constituents have lived under the constant threat of explosions or toxic releases in our neighborhoods, never knowing what or when the next disaster will be... This week we joined more than 70 elected officials from 16 states and territories nationwide in writing a letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan urging him to place disaster prevention and environmental justice at the center of an updated rule."
"Have you ever watched somebody shake a can of soda, and then get ready to crack open the top? You know it’s going to explode, but you don’t know when, or how bad it will be. That’s what it’s like living near a chemical plant. Except the consequences can be deadly. As a lifelong resident of Kanawha County, West Virginia — an area that has been home to dozens of industrial facilities making everything from pesticides to plastics — I know this uncertain feeling all too well."
How close do you live to hazardous RMP facilities?
a fire at the Winston Weaver Fertilizer plant in North Carolina that caused 6,500 people to evacuate and nearly triggered a deadly ammonium nitrate explosion;
an explosion at the Westlake Chemical South plant that caused 7,000 students to shelter in place in the Lake Charles area in Louisiana;
and a massive fire that spread to the Qualco chemical plant in Passaic, New Jersey and came dangerously close to igniting an estimated 3 million pounds of hazardous chemicals.
The report offers actionable recommendations the EPA should include in its final RMP rule that could prevent similar incidents from happening in the future, including:
Requiring all RMP facilities to consider, document, and implement safer chemicals and technologies;
Expanding the Risk Management Program to cover ammonium nitrate and other hazardous chemicals which remain excluded in the proposed rule;
Requiring RMP facilities to not only consider the risks posed by natural hazards, as proposed in the draft rule, but to take meaningful steps to prepare for those risks, such as implementing backup power for chemical production and storage processes.
Transitioning to Safer Substitutes. Our infographic shows how a water reclamation plant in Albuquerque, New Mexico was able to stop storing dangerous quantities of chlorine gas on site by switching to an ultraviolet light disinfection system, after residents took action.
Unprepared for Disaster: Chemical Hazards in the Wake of Hurricane Ida. In this 2021 report, we profile three facilities in Louisiana that put communities at risk by releasing toxic chemicals into the environment after being hit with high winds and flooding from Hurricane Ida. We recommend several ways the EPA could meaningfully update its Risk Management Program to prevent chemical disasters from happening in the first place.
Read the public comments submitted by Coming Clean, EJHA and over 80 organizations submitted to calling for a stronger Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule, and watch the testimonies of advocates and frontline community members affected by past chemical disasters.
The Louisville Charter for Safer Chemicals is our roadmap for transforming the chemical industry, endorsed by over 125 organizations. Safer chemicals and processes exist. We must phase out the production of chemicals that put communities in danger and contribute to climate change - and take immediate action to strengthen and restore communities that have have borne the brunt of legacy and ongoing contamination by the chemical industry.
Hazardous chemical accidents are occurring almost daily, on average, in the United States, exposing people to dangerous toxins through fires, explosions, leaks, spills and other releases, according to a new analysis by non-profit researchers. The report, prepared by Coming Clean, in conjunction with a network of environmental and economic justice organizations in the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, documents what it calls an “alarming frequency” of accidents, and comes a month before US regulators are expected to release final rules aimed at preventing such incidents.
Over 825 hazardous chemical incidents – including fires, explosions and harmful chemical releases – have occurred since the beginning of 2021, and over 270 incidents have occurred this year alone, according to data published today by the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters. Data included in the coalition’s online Chemical Incident Trackeris sourced from news reports. “Preventable chemical incidents are happening far too often across the country,” said Maya Nye, Federal Policy Director of Coming Clean, a member of the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters. “Communities shouldn’t have to leave their homes, shelter in place, or worry for the safety of their air and water because chemical plants can’t contain their toxic chemicals. Hazardous facilities must be required to do more to protect workers and communities.”
Coming Clean's Federal Policy Director Maya Nye spoke to PBS News about the urgent need for EPA to finalize a strong new Risk Management Plan rule to help prevent chemical disasters (which occur on average every other day across the US). Fenceline communities, workers, national security advocates, and many others have called on EPA to require transition to safer chemicals and processes whenever possible.
This April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposal to significantly reduce emissions of toxic and other harmful air pollution from chemical plants, with the goal of dramatically reducing the number of people who face elevated air toxics-related cancer risks. Coming Clean and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance (EJHA) both applauded this proposed rule, and encouraged members to submit public comments supporting its finalization. However, as our networks reviewed the details of this rule, and the list of facilities that it would actually regulate, many of our members soon realized that it wouldn’t impact all the facilities emitting cancer-causing chemicals in their neighborhoods.
Nationally, health advocates have long called for stronger prevention on chemical threats. Last year, they urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen its Risk Management Plan Rule, which is meant to protect the millions of Americans living near high-risk chemical facilities. Among the changes advocates want: push facilities to adopt safer chemicals and processes, and require broad disclosure — in multiple languages — about chemicals stored on site. EPA is expected to issue a final rule in August. “Until EPA takes up measures like these, we’ll see incidents like East Palestine happen over and over,” Maya Nye, PhD, federal policy director for Coming Clean, an environmental health nonprofit, told The Nation’s Health.
There is a chemical explosion, fire or toxic release every other day in this country. "That is just too much," said Dr. Maya Nye, Federal Policy Director of Coming Clean. "You can't smell cancer- these chemicals can do harm, either immediately or over a period of time." The Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters is calling for stronger EPA regulations, including mandating facilities to switch to safer alternatives.
The unusually high profile of the East Palestine derailment — which prompted the railroad to send a massive black plume into the air, went viral on social media and became a political flash point — drew national attention to federal rules governing toxic chemicals, railroad safety and chemical transport. While activists who talked to The Washington Post said heightened awareness of chemical risks is good, watching an emergency unfold can also be difficult. “Every time they happen, they remind you of the disasters that you’ve experienced,” said Maya Nye, a West Virginia activist and federal policy director at Coming Clean, a nonprofit organization that advocates for preventing chemical disasters. “It’s just yet another reminder of the protections that aren’t there that people in my community have been fighting for for so long,” Nye said. Some have also noted that the incident in East Palestine, a majority-White town of 4,700 people, drew more attention than those in their communities of color. In Houston, advocates’ frustration was compounded by the news that some of the toxic waste excavated in East Palestine would be trucked to a Southeast Texas facility. “We have become the dumping ground for the rest of the nation,” said Ana Parras, co-director of the Houston-based group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, which advocates for people living near rail tracks and chemical facilities. Her organization and others protested the movement of the derailment waste to Harris County, Tex.
Five weeks after the Norfolk Southern train disaster in the small town of East Palestine, Ohio, the company’s CEO Alan Shaw was grilled on Capitol Hill Thursday about the February 3rd derailment and so-called controlled burn that blanketed the town with a toxic brew of at least six hazardous chemicals and gases, including vinyl chloride, which, when heated, becomes phosgene, the World War I chemical weapon. The company has evaded calls to cover healthcare costs as residents continue to report headaches, coughing, fatigue, irritation and burning of the skin. For more on the ongoing fallout from the toxic crash, and its roots in the plastics industry, we are joined by Monica Unseld, a biologist and environmental and social justice advocate who has studied the health impact of endocrine-disrupting chemicals used in plastics like those released in East Palestine.
Since 2010, there have been at least 40 chemical incidents worldwide involving vinyl chloride and PVC. These have occurred at 29 facilities worldwide, including a dozen chemical factories in the U.S. Fires, leaks, and explosions killed at least 71 people and injured 637 people. Many more people, animals, and plants have been harmed over the long-term. Material Research today published a chronology and map of these incidents in collaboration with Coming Clean, in support of the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters.
In the wake of the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment, Governor Mike DeWine called on Congress to look into why the rural village didn’t know ahead of time they had volatile chemicals coming through town. “We should know when we have trains carrying hazardous materials through the state of Ohio,” DeWine said at a press conference. This information is out there, but it’s probably not what the governor had in mind. With the derailment of the Norfolk Southern train receiving international attention, more railroad communities are now asking what is traveling through their backyard. Stephanie Herron, a national organizer with the collective Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform said in a statement that neighboring communities refuse to accept these events as a fact of life. “These issues aren’t new to the people who live near hazardous facilities who have been speaking up about the urgent need to transition to safer chemicals to prevent disasters in their communities,“ Herron said. “What’s new is that more people are paying attention.”
Mike DeWine, the Ohio governor, recently lamented the toll taken on the residents of East Palestine after the toxic train derailment there, saying “no other community should have to go through this”. But such accidents are happening with striking regularity. A Guardian analysis of data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and by non-profit groups that track chemical accidents in the US shows that accidental releases – be they through train derailments, truck crashes, pipeline ruptures or industrial plant leaks and spills – are happening consistently across the country. By one estimate these incidents are occurring, on average, every two days. For Eboni Cochran, a mother and volunteer community activist, the East Palestine disaster has hardly added to her faith in the federal government. Cochran lives with her husband and 16-year-old son roughly 400 miles south of the derailment, near a Louisville, Kentucky, industrial zone along the Ohio River that locals call “Rubbertown.” The area is home to a cluster of chemical manufacturing facilities, and curious odors and concerns about toxic exposures permeate the neighborhoods near the plants.
A new map released by the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters today shows that the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio is one of at least 224 incidents involving hazardous chemicals – including toxic releases, fires and explosions – that have occurred since January 1, 2022. The map will be periodically updated through the year to reflect new chemical incidents.