Court Ruling Will Force Trump Administration to Make Chemical Plants Safer

This is what remained of a Texas-based chemical facility after it suffered a major explosion in 2013.
Photo: Getty

Five years ago, a fertilizer plant blasted in the small city West, Texas, burst into flames, producing an explosion that destroyed a chunk of the town and registered as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake.

That deadly event—which killed 15 and injured more than 260 people—would push former President Barack Obama to issue an executive order to improve safety and security at facilities like the West Fertilizer Company’s, a move which eventually led to the Environmental Protection Agency issuing an updated safety rule. Now, President Donald Trump and his goons are trying to tear it apart—but the courts won’t let them.

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On Friday, the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against the Trump administration’s attempt to delay the Obama-era update to the Risk Management Plan Rule, which requires chemical facilities to develop risk management plans under the Clean Air Act. Environmental groups like Air Alliance Houston, along with 11 states, filed the litigation last year when the EPA first announced its plan to delay the rule; part of a broad push by former administrator Scott Pruitt to delay or roll back Obama-era regulations.

The judges took issue with the provision under the Clean Air Act the EPA used to delay the rule. The EPA can delay a rule for 90 days if comments or petitions warrant such, but this rule was more than a year behind schedule. The administration was making a “mockery” of that statute, the panel of judges noted.

“By delaying the effective date, EPA has delayed compliance, reduced, or eliminated the lead-up time to achieve the compliance that EPA had earlier found necessary, and thus has delayed life-saving protections,” the judges’ opinion read.

In short, the updated Obama-era rule—which was set to go into effect March 2017 and was supposed to strengthen emergency preparedness and increase transparency surrounding what chemicals are stored in these facilities—is back in business, baby.

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Roughly 12,500 chemical facilities like the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, have risk plans under this rule. Each facility poses its own risk and threats. The communities living closest to these facilities tend to be predominately black and Latinx, according to a report the advocacy group Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform put out in 2014. Keeping the rule intact will make those communities safer.

This ruling is the latest in a string of court wins for environmentalists, including one banning a harmful pesticide and another to protect streams from pollution. The Trump administration may want to keep environmental protections on the backburner, but looks like public servants who file these suits in the first place—and the courts that hear them out—won’t let it.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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