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GAO Concerned by Climate Change Risk Management at Hazardous Chemical Facilities

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reviewed climate change risks at facilities that make, use, handle, or store hazardous substances.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Risk Management Plan (RMP) Rule requires such facilities to develop and implement a risk management program to detect and prevent or minimize the consequences of an accidental release. These facilities, known as RMP facilities, include chemical manufacturers and water treatment plants. 

Federal data on flooding, storm surge, wildfire, and sea level rise indicate that over 3,200 of the 10,420 facilities GAO analyzed, or about 31 percent, are located in areas with these natural hazards. Climate change may make some natural hazards more frequent or intense. In turn, these hazards can lead to the accidental release of harmful chemicals. Flooding may inundate tanks and pipelines, leading to corrosion, severance of pipe connections, and rupture. Wildfires may lead to power outages, which could affect the safe operations of RMP facilities. Although projections vary by state and region, on average, GAO’s report notes that the annual area burned by lightning-ignited wildfire is expected to increase by at least 30 percent by 2060. 

Once an RMP facility has identified a natural hazard in its hazard review or process hazard analysis, it must identify actions to safeguard against risks from the hazard in order to prevent accidental releases. Safeguards may include aspects of equipment design, maintenance, operations, and training, according to EPA guidance.

But EPA officials told GAO that RMP facilities face several challenges, including insufficient information and direction, in managing risks from natural hazards and climate change. By issuing regulations, guidance, or both to clarify requirements and provide direction on how to incorporate these risks into risk management programs, GAO said EPA can better ensure that facilities are managing risks from all relevant hazards. The government watchdog added that when developing any such regulation, EPA should, pursuant to relevant executive orders, conduct a cost-benefit analysis.

It is worth noting that EPA’s 2021 Climate Adaptation Action Plan states that the agency will support businesses, as well as other entities, by producing and delivering the training, tools, technical support, data, and information they need to adapt and increase resilience to climate change.

However, GAO’s review found that EPA has a shortage of credentialed RMP inspectors. In 2020, the number of credentialed inspectors, including contractors, reached its lowest level (35 inspectors) in a decade. As a result, the number of RMP facilities that EPA inspects each year has declined since 2012, from 625 per year to 284. Alongside this, GAO found that EPA does not consider natural hazards or climate change, or the relative social vulnerability of surrounding communities to these hazards, when selecting facilities for inspection.

More frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events are expected to continue to damage infrastructure, necessitating improvements in RMP climate resilience. GAO has therefore made six recommendations:

The Assistant Administrator of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance and Director of the Office of Emergency Management, together with EPA officials at regional offices, should provide additional compliance assistance to RMP facilities related to risks from natural hazards and climate change. 

The Assistant Administrator of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance should design an information system to track common deficiencies found during inspections, including any related to natural hazards and climate change, and use this information to target compliance assistance.

The Director of the Office of Emergency Management should issue regulations, guidance, or both, as appropriate, to clarify requirements and provide direction for RMP facilities on how to incorporate risks from natural hazards and climate change into their risk management programs. 

The Assistant Administrator of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance and Director of the Office of Emergency Management should develop a method for inspectors to assess the sufficiency of RMP facilities’ incorporation of risks from natural hazards and climate change into risk management programs and provide related guidance and training to inspectors. 

The Assistant Administrator of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, working with officials at regional offices, should incorporate vulnerability of RMP facilities to natural hazards and climate change as criteria when selecting facilities for inspection. The Assistant Administrator of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, working with EPA officials at regional offices, should incorporate the relative social vulnerability of communities that could be impacted by an accidental release when selecting RMP facilities for inspection.

EPA agreed with GAO’s recommendations but said that the ongoing RMP rulemaking process will affect its timeline for implementing them. EPA stated that the agency plans to develop materials and products on risks from natural hazards and climate change, such as compliance assistance and guidance, as appropriate, based on the provisions in the final rule, which is scheduled to be published in 2023.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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