EPA issues new rules to prevent chemical disasters; DEP to strengthen its legal safeguards

New Jersey will be upgrading its state chemical safety regulation to implement the new, stronger federal protections against chemical releases, fires and explosions.

The news comes after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency implemented a new national rule on March 1, Safer Communities by Chemical Accident Prevention.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection implements and enforces the federal rules and must adopt the new EPA rules, known as the “Risk Management Program,” if stronger than existing state law.

The rules cover approximately 90 New Jersey facilities across the state that use extraordinarily hazardous substances above specified quantities.

Under the strengthened standards, chemical facility owners in New Jersey and nationally must, for the first time:

  • Better evaluate risks of extreme weather and climate change on potential disasters;
  • Implement prevention safeguards, such as safer chemicals and processing methods, in chemical and oil refinery sectors that tend to have high incident rates;
  • Utilize independent third-party safety audits and root cause analyses after major accidental releases with impacts such as deaths, injuries, sheltering or property damage;
  • Provide information, upon request, about chemical hazards to people living or working within six miles of the facility in at least the two most common languages of the community;
  • Advance worker and union training and participation in hazard prevention;
  • Empower a qualified operator in charge of a unit to shut down an operation if there was a threat of a catastrophic release.

Debra Coyle, executive director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, said, “The New Jersey Work Environment Council, along with state and national labor, environmental and environmental justice organizations, has advocated for decades that U.S. EPA strengthen its safeguards to prevent chemical disasters, and we are pleased that the (President Joe) Biden administration took meaningful action.”

One significant change is the adoption of a Stop Work Authority. Rick Engler, a former member of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, said, “EPA’s new rule includes key safety advances; among them is allowing workers and their representatives to stop work if there is a catastrophic danger.”

Another advance heralded by advocates is the right for those living or working near facilities to get vital and most up-to-date chemical hazard information directly from facilities. Amy Goldsmith, New Jersey state director, Clean Water Action, said, “The ‘right to know’ part of the new rule requiring facility management to provide hazard information to residents is essential to better community oversight and accountability of industry — often resulting in better facility safeguards and reducing chronic and catastrophic chemical exposures for all.”