How can U.S. companies avoid the next environmental disaster?

February 20, 2014

This blog has dedicated several posts to some environmental disasters that deserve attention. First, there was the recent coal ash spill in North Carolina that may have spread toxic chemicals into nearby rivers. Then, there was the chemical spill in West Virginia that left thousands of residents without safe drinking water for days. In both cases, the focus is on the prevention of future incidents.

But is enough being done? In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Rafael Moure-Eraso, the chairman of the United States Chemical Safety Board, writes that the United States may be "facing an industrial chemical safety crisis." Citing the West Virginia incident, he argues that the industry needs to adopt safer technology that will cut down on accidents. However, he cautions policy makers against waiting for energy companies to take up the mantle themselves.

"What we need is comprehensive regulatory reform," he writes. "But achieving safety reforms is complicated and time-consuming. In the interim, the Environmental Protection Agency should step in and use its power under the Clean Air Act's general duty clause to compel chemical facilities to take steps to make their operations inherently safer."

It is true that the Toxic Substances Control Act, which is 37 years old, is limited. According to an article on the Washington Post, it is difficult for the federal government to restrict or ban toxic chemicals due to the many loopholes and exceptions present. As a result, too much of the impetus is placed on businesses.

Moure-Eraso added that, "The law assigns owners and operators of these facilities a general duty to identify hazards, design and maintain safe facilities and minimize the consequences of leaks. The E.P.A. should follow up by adopting specific regulations to meet those goals."

He argued that in the case of the West Virginia chemical leak, the old storage tank could have been replaced with newer, leak proof tanks that could have contained the hazardous chemicals much more effectively—or even avoided the incident altogether. 

Though the company responsible for the incident, Freedom Industries, has come under fire for allegedly failing to do enough to prevent the spill that doesn't mean no companies in the industry are taking steps to protect themselves.

Consider the work of BP, which only a few years ago became notorious for a leak that spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. On its website, the company highlights its efforts to invest in safer drilling practices, as well as improved safety in its downstream business.

Though it may not always seem this way, businesses and governments can work together to prevent future environmental incidents. However, these stakeholders may need to seek out the services of an environmental consulting firm, which can help them establish best practices for managing potential environmental liabilities.