The Obama administration rule updates safety regulations for large-charge ammonia refrigeration under the Risk Management Program – but will Trump reverse it?
U.S. cold storage and food processing facilities using at least 10,000 lbs. of ammonia in refrigeration processes will be subject to new regulations in 2017 under the Environmental Protection Agency’s final rule amending its Risk Management Program (RMP), issued in late December.
The new rule, designed to improve safety at facilities that use hazardous chemicals, came about as a result of the Obama administration’s Executive Order 13650, issued in August 2013 in response to a catastrophic explosion at a Texas fertilizer facility earlier that year. It expands upon previous RMP regulations, which include submitting a document called a risk management plan to the EPA outlining a facility’s safety program.
The new rule will become effective 60 days following publication in the Federal Register, which had not yet taken place as of January 2.
The expansion of the RMP, as well as greater enforcement of the program, has led many operators to implement low-charge ammonia systems that use far less than 10,000 lbs. of ammonia and are thus held to the EPA’s less restrictive General Duty Clause,
According to a questions-and-answers document on the RMP final rule issued online by the EPA, the new rule covers three broad areas: ensuring that local responders and community residents are prepared for an accident; preventing catastrophic accidents; and third-party audits. In a preliminary version of the rule, the EPA states that it “believes that revisions [of RMP regulations] could further protect human health and the environment from chemical hazards through advancement of process safety management based on lessons learned.”
However, the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president in November has led to speculation that the new administration could try to reexamine the rule, particularly because it was released very late in Obama’s presidency. “If the industry places enough concern on the final RMP rule, I think you’ll see Trump and maybe Congress looking to use the Congressional Review Act as a way to scrutinize the rule and either disapprove of it or have the Trump administration try to move away from it,” said Lowell Randel, vice president, government and legal affairs, Global Cold Chain Alliance.
“[The EPA] believes that revisions [of RMP regulations] could further protect human health and the environment from chemical hazards through advancement of process safety management based on lessons learned.”
– Questions-and-answers document on the RMP final rule issued online by the EPA
In the industrial refrigeration industry, the most controversial part of the new rule involves third party audits. The rule requires industrial refrigeration operators to get an independent third party – rather than use its own internal resources – to conduct a compliance audit within a year following a reportable accident. An owner or operator must also engage a third-party auditor if the EPA determines that conditions at the facility could lead to an accidental release of a regulated substance, or if a previous third-party audit “failed to meet the competency or independence criteria specified in the rule,” the document said.
The third-party audit may be conducted by “a team of auditors” led by a third-party auditor. The team may include “experts from the [facility] who understand the chemical plant design and process,” thereby providing “due consideration to a facility’s professional personnel involvement in the audit,” the document said. The third-party requirement provision must be followed within four years of the effective date of the final rule.
The final rule also increases coordination between facilities using hazardous chemicals like ammonia and Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs). It requires facilities to “conduct annual coordination with LEPCs or local emergency response officials to clarify response needs, emergency plans, roles and responsibilities,” said the Q&A document.
The coordination requirements “improve the information available to emergency planners and responders, making it more relevant and accessible, to help ensure responders understand the risks at the facility,” the document said. This will include one “notification exercise” per year, one “tabletop exercise” every three years and at least one “field exercise” every decade. These requirements must be followed within one year of the effective date of the final rule.
In regard to preventing catastrophic accidents, the final rule requires additional reporting in investigations after any incident that “resulted in or could reasonably have resulted in a catastrophic release,” the document said. In particular, a facility must identify the fundamental reason (root cause) for the incident and prepare a report within 12 months of the incident that includes “consequences of the accident and any emergency response action taken.”
In the past decade, EPA data on chemical plants (which include a wide range of facilities in addition to cold storage and food/beverage manufacturing) show that there have been more than 1,517 reportable accidents, 473 of which had offsite impacts. The reportable accidents were responsible for 58 deaths, 17,099 people who were injured or sought medical treatment, almost 500,000 people evacuated or sheltered in-place, and over $2 billion in property damage.
The complete prepublication version of the final RMP rule can be accessed here.