The propane gas industry is elated and environmental groups appear indifferent, but other organizations and individuals are scratching their heads wondering why.
Their responses are over the recently enacted law curbing public access to chemical disaster information, including a provision exempting flammable fuels from the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) risk management program.
Industry representatives argue that fuels such as propane and butane never should have been linked to toxic chemicals and their stringent regulatory requirements. Congress evidently agrees.
Fear that terrorists could misuse chemical plants' "worst-case" scenario information if it was posted on the Internet provoked Congress earlier this year to approve curbs on the public's "right to know" (S. 880, The Chemical Safety Information, Site Security and Fuels Regulatory Relief Act). The same law also amends Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act to remove flammable fuels from the list of substances, which must file a risk management plan (RMP).
The agency's RMP requires off-site consequence analysis and process safety management to reduce hazards to workers and residents who live nearby affected facilities.
Although EPA worked with FBI and CIA to balance national security with public access to toxic chemical information, it did not support the provision of S. 880 that excludes most commercial users of flammable fuels from the RMP program. Instead, the agency proposed exempting facilities that store amounts less than 67,000 pounds of flammable hydrocarbons so that small fuel users would not be subject to its regulations.
Timothy Fields, EPA's assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, outlined the agency's opposition to exempting commercial users of propane from the RMP rule during hearings in March 1999 on the bill before the Senate"s Subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, Private Property and Nuclear Safety.
"The agency does not intend the exemption to provide relief to industrial users or fuel retailers and distributors," Fields said. "EPA believes those facilities' use, storage and handling of large quantities of regulated fuels continues to present a serious risk to the surrounding community that warrants coverage by the RMP rule."
Fields testified that, while there is no law that requires the reporting of propane releases, EPA received reports of more than 1,000 propane accidents from 1987 to 1998. The reported accidents resulted in 32 deaths, 259 injuries and evacuations in 32 communities.
Phil Squair, a spokesman for the National Propane Gas Association, concedes that propane is a hazardous substance. "That's partly why it's such a good fuel, because it burns so well," he said. Squair argued that propane already is highly regulated at state and federal levels.
At the heart of most state regulations of propane is National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 58. Squair suggested that what motivated the propane industry to seek congressional relief was EPA's "broad brush" approach to regulation. The agency sought to regulate many disparate chemicals through one set of regulations, the RMP.
The Department of Transportation will continue to regulate the transport of flammable fuels, and OSHA regulations, where appropriate, will continue to mandate process safety standards for nonretail establishments, according to Squair. Under the new law, flammable fuel users will rely chiefly on NFPA 58 to prevent propane accidents.
"This shows that NFPA is not just an industry standard and that other people believe it has value as well," he said. "We're really pleased with the outcome."
Wade Whitlock, an associate for hazard control with A&L Shatto Inc., disagrees with Squair's assessment. "NFPA 58 doesn't say anything about workers or the surrounding populations. The safety of the emergency responders is the only concern," he argued. "Since it was written by firefighters, that's understandable."