Last week, in the far south Baltimore neighborhood of Curtis Bay, an accident at a chemical factory released a huge cloud of chlorosulfonic acid – a gas that can burn the lungs and even be fatal.
Longshoreman Kasimir Kowalski was working nearby. “A truck of chemicals inadvertently pulled off with the line still hooked up, and ripped the line and the chemicals came out and hit the ground and that’s why you got the flume,” he said.
The Baltimore Fire Department issued a “shelter in place” warning. City officials told 18,000 households within a mile radius of the Solvay Inc. USA chemical plant at 3440 Fairfield Road in Baltimore to remain indoors, close their windows, and try to avoid contact with the toxic yellow cloud drifting over the city.
No serious injuries were reported. But several Curtis Bay residents were angry about the lack of effective safety procedures and good public information about the numerous chemical and industrial plants that surround their homes.
Local resident David Bowman said the acid gas cloud wasn’t the first or last scare in the neighborhood – with a huge explosion at a factory a few years back; and a warehouse fire on Monday blackening the skies with smoke.
“It should have never happened, because it affects people. I’ve got lung problems and stuff and it could really affect it more,” Bowman said. “They should regulate (these chemical plants) a lot more and do a lot better job of regulating that stuff for safety reasons, because there are a lot of people from the neighborhood and a lot of kids running around, playing and stuff.”
And here’s what the people of Curtis Bay don’t know: New federal safety regulations for chemical plants were scheduled to take effect six months ago, in March. EPA’s so-called Chemical Disaster Rule, inspired by an explosion at a West Texas fertilizer factory that killed 15 people in 2013, would have required companies to conduct safety audits and take more steps to prevent accidents. The regulations also would have provided more information about toxic chemicals to local residents.
But after being lobbied by the chemical industry, President Trump’s EPA this spring stripped all the deadlines from the regulations – effectively gutting them.
“It certainly is problematic, given that the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency is to protect public health and the environment,” said Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “And this rule was designed to further protect public health and the environment from future chemical disasters.”
One of the groups lobbying against the regulations was the American Chemical Council, of which the Solvay, with its plant in Baltimore, is a member. Another was the Arkema Inc. chemical company, whose plant outside Houston burned and then exploded during the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey.
Bethany Davis Noll is the litigation director at the nonprofit Institute for Policy Integrity. She noted that police and firefighters responding to the Arkema fire in Houston were sickened, had to be hospitalized, and are now suing because the company did not provide emergency responders accurate information about what chemicals were on site.
“There is a real need for the people who live nearby, and for the people who are responding to these accidents, to know what they are going to encounter when they put out the fire, or when people nearby are trying to protect their families,” Noll said. “So now to turn around and cancel those protections -- EPA clearly did not think this through, and that is a real danger to public health.”
The argument for eliminating regulations like this is that they are burdensome to business. But reducing this burden can create another burden: to breathing.