USW Succeeds in Lawsuit to End Delay of Chemical Disaster Rule

In a victory for the USW, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia threw out the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rule delaying enforcement of safety standards for plants using hazardous chemicals.

The USW was the only union, along with community and environmental groups, to sue the EPA, and demand that the agency end its delay of protections against chemical releases, explosions and fires that harm workers and the community.

The court agreed with the union and other plaintiffs and intervenors supporting the case. It said the EPA failed to justify the 20-month delay. In its 36-page opinion, the court said EPA “makes a mockery of the statute” with a rule that was “calculated to enable non-compliance.”

“We’re pleased with the DC Circuit’s decision vacating the delay of the Chemical Disaster Rule,” said Anna Fendley, USW legislative representative. “As the opinion highlighted, workers would be impacted by the delay, and EPA cannot ignore its original findings when it issued the Chemical Disaster Rule.

“Although this is a victory, we continue to fight back against the EPA’s latest proposed rollbacks to the Chemical Disaster Rule,” she added.

The EPA, under the current administration, had tried to delay the previous administration’s regulation updating the Risk Management Program, or Chemical Disaster Rule as it is commonly known.  

The updated rule contained common-sense provisions like increased coordination and information-sharing with first-responders and local governments; employee involvement in determining root causes of incidents and near misses, and increased information about chemical risks for surrounding communities.

The Obama administration updated the chemical safety provisions as a result of incidents like the horrific explosion at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant in 2013 that burned down half the town and killed 14 first-responders and onlookers.

But the new protections did not suit the chemical industry and it fought them. When the current administration took over, the chemical sector petitioned the EPA to delay and then eliminate the protections. The agency issued a series of administrative delays, and in June 2017 it created a rule to delay the new regulations until February 2019.  EPA said it wanted time to modify or eliminate the Chemical Disaster Rule.

Right to Sue

This case was also important because the court determined that the USW had standing, meaning the union had the right to bring forth this case because it impacted its members. The court’s ruling made it clear that unions have the right to defend their members, not only in the workplace, but in the community as well.

Ben Lilienfeld, USW Sub-District director in District 13, and Kim Nibarger, head of the union’s oil sector, submitted affidavits about the risks USW members face as plant workers, first-responders and community residents. Their statements strongly influenced the court to agree the union had standing.

Since the community and environmental groups joined the USW as plaintiffs or as intervenors (supporters of the plaintiffs’ case), they obtained standing through the USW. A standing decision for one party applies to all.

This should help the union in its coalition-building, which will be necessary to defend the Chemical Disaster Rule’s protections from EPA’s proposals to eliminate almost all of them.

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