Risk Management Plans (RMPs)
Bicoastal Challenges Face County
Chemical Safety Laws
Lewis, Editor, Full Disclosure
By June 1999, industries throughout the US will be required to produce chemical accident prevention plans, known as Risk
Management Plans (RMPs), in implementation of provisions of the Clean Air Act of 1990. The RMP requirements, as
implemented by USEPA regulations, are controversial with community, environmental and labor organizations due to the
failure of EPA to require fundamental safeguards such as public participation, disclosure of underlying safety studies and
technologies, and application of inherently safer technologies.
Under pressure from concerned citizens, and in response to specific incidents, some local governments have begun filling the
gaps in this regulatory framework, by establishing local laws and regulations which establish mechanisms for participation,
disclosure and use of best technologies. Now, a mere six months away from the due date for the RMP's, on both coasts local
laws providing corporate accountability on industrial safety issues are enmeshed in major fights.
In Contra Costa County, California, a "Good Neighbor" Ordinance providing local oversight on refinery maintenance projects
may soon be amended to require safety plans for entire local facilities. But according to environmentalists watching the
amendment process, the proposed revisions fall short of what is needed. For instance, Denny Larson of Communities for a
Better Environment said the county must require refineries to use the best and safest technology, which, he said, would help
prevent accidents like the 1993 General Chemical sulfuric acid leak in Richmond, the 1994 Unocal catacarb leak in Rodeo and
the 1997 explosion at Tosco's refinery near Martinez that killed a worker.
Larson notes that proposed industry-drafted amendments were promoted through gathering of 20,000 signatures gathered by
misleading people that they were signing to support "clean air", even though the ordinance has nothing to do with that.
Instead of passing the industry amendments, Larson urged the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors to insert clear "Right to
Act" provisions in the new refinery safety law. Proposed revisions would allow plant employees or unions to call for a county
audit of a refinery's safety programs, and to require plants to use safer chemicals and equipment unless they document that it is
not feasible to do so.
On the east coast, in Passaic, New Jersey, where a County Right to Act law enacted in 1998 established a citizen inspection and
oversight process, industry is campaigning for a repeal. Responding to recent chemical accidents, including one that sent
children to the hospital, the Passaic County law enables neighbors and workers to set up Neighborhood Hazard Prevention
Advisory Committees that can survey a facility of concern and make recommendations for preventive measures. But Jim
Sinclair, First Vice President of the NJ Business and Industry Association stated, "Who in their right mind thinks it is good
public policy to allow a self-appointed group of union activists and local vigilantes to have unrestrained access to your private
property? Why not abolish 1,000 years of private property rights?" Industry has also called the law "socialistic or even
communistic," a "nightmare" and "un-American."
In reality the Passaic law's empaneling of a group of citizens is not a radical innovation, but rather is an advisory process that
improves on the chemical industry's Responsible Care "citizen advisory panels" by ensuring that local citizens, not companies,
select oversight groups. The law's survey provisions are not as strong as other long-standing precedents such as citizen
inspection provisions under the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, and the provisions of many of the Good
Neighbor Agreements established at local industries throughout the U.S. which not only have allowed citizen inspections but
also covered the costs of citizens' independent experts.
The outcome of these County struggles is worth watching. It seems likely that what happens in these places may help to
inform future action in many other locations.
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