U.S. EPA Issues the Latest Revision to the Risk Management Program (RMP) Chemical Release Rules

Written by Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP

The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (U.S. EPA’s) revised Risk Management Rules, designed to reduce the risk of the accidental release of hazardous chemicals, have been published in the Federal Register.  The citation to this action is 84 FR 69834 (December 19, 2019).  The rule is effective on December 19, 2019, but also provides for some staggered compliance dates for emergency response exercises and updating certain risk management plan provisions.  These revisions were triggered by EPA’s review of several petitions for reconsideration of EPA’s January 13, 2017 amendments to the rules set forth in 1996 at 40 CFR Part 68, which implemented the chemical accident preventions provisions required by Section 112 (r)  of the Clean Air Act.  Many of the 2017 requirements have been rescinded by this action.

On November 21, 2019, the U.S. EPA released a pre-publication copy of its Reconsideration of the revised Risk Management Program (RMP) Rules. In an accompanying statement, the agency noted that it has taken steps to “modify and improve” the existing rule to remove burdensome, costly and unnecessary requirements while maintaining appropriate protection (against accidental chemical releases) and ensuring responders have access to all of the necessary safety information. This action was taken in response to U.S. EPA’s January 13, 2017 revisions that significantly expanded the chemical release prevention provisions the existing RMP rules in the wake of the disastrous chemical plant explosion in West, Texas. The Reconsideration will take effect upon its publication in the Federal Register.

Background
As recounted by the D. C. Circuit in its August 2018 decision in the case of Air Alliance Houston, et al. v. EPA, in 1990, the Congress amended the Clean Air Act to force the regulation of hazardous air pollutants (see 42 USC Section 7412). An initial list of these hazardous air pollutants was also published, at Section 7412 (b). Section 112(r) (codified at 42 USC Section 7412 (r)), authorized the U.S. EPA to develop a regulatory program to prevent or minimize the consequences of a release of a listed chemical from a covered stationary source. The U.S. EPA was directed to propose and promulgate release prevention, detection, and correction requirements applicable to stationary sources (such as plants) that store or manage these regulated substances in amounts determined to be above regulated threshold quantities. The U.S. EPA promulgated these rules in 1996 (see 61 FR 31668). The rules, located at 40 CFR Part 68, contain several separate subparts devoted to hazard assessments, prevention programs, emergency response, accidental release prevention, the development and registration of a Risk Management Plan, and making certain information regarding the release publicly available.  The U.S. EPA notes that over 12.000 RMP plans have been filed with the agency.

In response to the catastrophe in at the West Plant, the U.S. EPA issued substantial amendments to these rules, covering accident prevention (expanding post-accident investigations, more rigorous safety audits, and enhanced safety training), revised emergency response requirements, and enhanced public information disclosure requirements. (See 82 FR 4594 (January 13, 2017).) However, the new administration at the U.S. EPA, following the submission of several petitions for reconsideration of these revised rules, issued a “Delay Rule” on June 14, 2017, which would have extended the effective date of the January 2107 rules until February 19, 2019. On August 17, 2018, the Delay Rule was rejected and vacated by the D.C. Circuit in the aforementioned Air Alliance case (see 906 F. 3d 1049 (DC Circuit 2018)), which had the effect of making the hotly contested January 2017 RMP revisions immediately effective.

Reconsidering the January 2017 Revision
On May 30, 2018, the U.S. EPA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (see 83 FR 24850) to reconsider the reinstated RMP revisions and amendments, and the agency has now decided the issues raised in this rulemaking. Basically, it appears that the U.S. EPA is returning the rules to their pre-January 2017 stage and format. Over the years, these rules have been amended with some frequency, and the agency argues that these actions have all been discretionary once it finalized the basic 1996 version. Accordingly, it is acting well within its discretion to revise and rescind large portions of the 2017 amendments. Obviously, this is a complex regulatory program, but here are some highlights. The 2017 revisions to the Risk Management Program have been rescinded regarding safer technologies and alternatives analysis, third-party audits, incident investigations, and information availability. The U.S. EPA is also modifying regulations relating to local emergency coordination, emergency response exercises, compliance dates and public meetings. In addition, “this action rescinds almost all the requirements added in 2017 to accident prevention program provisions,” including again third-party audits. No longer will incident investigations be required to include a “root cause analysis,” or to consider a “near miss” that never resulted in an accidental release. The emergency response amendments are modified to allow facilities to share only that technical information necessary to implement the local emergency response plan. The agency and many commenters were concerned that the earlier rule risked the exposure of national security information. However, some of the 2107 changes to required public meetings have been retained. Finally, the U.S. EPA will establish new compliance dates to reflect these actions.

In the preamble, the U.S. EPA recognizes that the spate of recent chemical plant incidents has created concerns with these topsy-turvy regulatory proceedings. The agency points out that in several well publicized cases, these rules would not even have been applicable because the chemical release at issue was not a substance listed as a hazardous air pollutant in the statute or the implementing regulation, or in threshold quantities. Also, in the West fire and explosion, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) believes that the cause was not an accident, but a deliberate act. Finally, the U.S. EPA argues that it is unfair to burden all covered plants with a complicated and costly regulatory program when it is clear to the agency that only a handful of chemical plants are the source of the great majority of complaints.

What’s Next?
With revised Risk Management Rules now published in the Federal Register, these actions will likely be subject to another judicial challenge. The U.S. EPA has made a strong case that it is acting well within its statutory authority and consistent with the Administrative Procedure Act. However, the challenges will be serious and substantial.

This article has been republished with the permission of the author.  It was first posted on the Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP website.


About the Author

Anthony B. Cavender provides guidance and counseling relating to enforcement and compliance.  He has represented clients in Superfund matters, and in RCRA and Clean Water Act enforcement proceedings.  He is a Senior Counsel in the firm’s Houston office and a member of the Environmental & Natural Resources practice section. His practice focuses on the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and Superfund. Before joining Pillsbury, Anthony was a member of the legal department of Pennzoil Co., specializing in these areas as well as general corporate legal matters. He served on various energy industry committees and trade associations.