During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to establish regulations to secure chemical plants. The impetus was concern both about industrial accidents and the possibility of large-scale terrorist attacks.
After years of failed attempts to pass a new law and come up with new administrative regulations, a final regulation was released in December 2016.
That regulation has been attacked as not going far enough by activist groups.
The first attempt to enact changes came in an administration-backed chemical-security bill (H.R. 2868) that passed the House on Nov. 6, 2009, but died in the Senate in 2010.
Then, in 2013, following a fatal fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, Obama told EPA to produce new regulations on chemical facility safety. That process took more than three years.
On Dec. 21, 2016, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy signed a final rule that modifies the agency's Risk Management Program. The new regulations focus on "coordination of emergency response efforts as well as local preparedness, but leave it up to companies to decide whether or not to implement safer alternatives in their practices, such as a using a less toxic chemical or a less dangerous industrial process," according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis.
"One of the key issues is to make sure that there's full knowledge between the facility operators and the local responding community to make sure that they understand who is responding and who has the responsibility to respond," said Mathy Stanislaus, who heads the EPA office of land and emergency management.
But those supporting Obama's initial push for tough regulations expressed disappointment.
"Both Obama's bill in the Senate and his administration set principles that would have required all chemical facilities to assess safer alternatives and require the highest risk plants to use the safest alternative wherever feasible," said Rick Hind, the legislative director for Greenpeace USA. By contrast, he said, the new EPA rule "only requires 12 percent of 12,500 facilities to assess safer alternatives, and it requires none to use safer alternatives, even if they're found to be feasible. And it doesn't even require the assessments to be submitted to EPA."
All told, in Hind's view, "This is not only a betrayal of Obama's own leadership and legacy, it's also a betrayal of the more than 100 million people living and working downwind in what EPA calls 'vulnerability zones.'"
Industry comment was muted in the immediate aftermath of EPA's announcement. The Center for Public Integrity report quoted Shannon Broome of the Chemical Safety Advocacy Group, an industry group, raising concerns about the EPA's process but not commenting on the substance of the rule.
Partly because of its passage so late in the Obama administration, the new rule will be vulnerable to being changed or overturned by the incoming Trump administration.
The rule is not final until it is published in the Federal Register, and then it would take effect in 60 days unless the Trump administration decides to amend it through new rule process. In addition, Congress could challenge it within 60 legislative days under the Congressional Review Act.
Separately, Obama signed a four-year reauthorization of Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards, but those had already been in place since 2007. And he also signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, but this law had less to do with plant security.
All told, the EPA rule is a tangible accomplishment by the Obama administration, but its reach is much narrower than the bill the administration itself had tried to enact earlier in Obama's tenure. We rate it a Compromise.