Chevron refinery fire in August 2012. (Photo: Michael Moore/Flickr)

A Chemical Reaction

Spills, explosions, and leaks expose us to hundreds of hazardous chemicals, and the EPA has finally agreed to regulate them.

A year ago this week, a refinery explosion blasted a heavy cloud of chemical dust spreading out for up to a mile across the California city of Torrance. Two years ago, an industrial chemical leak contaminated drinking water for some 300,000 people in or near the West Virginia city of Charleston. And in 2012, more than 15,000 people went to the emergency room after being exposed to chemicals from a refinery that exploded in Richmond, California.

Rare instances? Not really.

Every year in our country, there are scores of spills, explosions, and other accidental releases of dangerous chemicals, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. In 2013, the independent federal agency screened 249 such incidents involving death, injury, evacuations, or grievous damage to property or the environment. The year before that, it assessed 334.

And U.S. Coast Guard data show thousands of leaks and spills each year of hazardous substances, many of which contaminate sources of drinking water.

The situation puts millions of Americans at risk. More than 134 million live near one of the 3,400 chemical plants, refineries, pulp and paper mills, power plants, or wastewater treatment facilities nationwide.

By and large, those most at risk from chemical blowouts, leaks, and spills from these facilities are people of color and those living in low-income communities. These are the people who traditionally have lived on the front lines of environmental risk and harm — in our country, as in most others.

This week, we took an important step toward reducing the risks chemical spills pose to our rivers, streams, and lakes when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed to formulate new safeguards to help protect our people from dangerous chemical releases at industrial plants.

The agreement is part of a settlement approved by the federal District Court for the Southern District of New York, the result of a lawsuit filed last July.

In the suit, NRDC and its partners — the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, a nationwide grassroots group, and People Concerned About Chemical Safety, of Charleston, West Virginia — alleged that the EPA was not fulfilling its obligations under the Clean Water Act, passed by Congress more than four decades ago.

As a result of the settlement, the EPA will soon begin the process of drafting rules to help protect Americans everywhere from the accidental release of more than 350 hazardous chemicals. Like all of the EPA’s rules, these will be drafted in a fully transparent and inclusive process, with ample opportunity for public input from the full range of stakeholders, including citizens, industry, environmental experts, and others. The EPA has until the middle of 2019 to finalize the new rules.

There’s more work to be done to help protect communities from accidents that put dangerous chemicals in our waters, air, and lands. And there’s more to be done in the fight for environmental justice.

We all deserve commonsense protection from threats to our environment and health. No one should have to bear a greater burden of damage and risk simply because of their racial background or economic station.

That belief is central to our fight to sustain a healthy environment — and a healthy democracy.