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U.S. EPA Announces Final Rule Updating Safety Requirements for Ammonia Refrigeration

The latest Risk Management Program proposal elicited objections from five industry trade groups.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on March 1 announced finalized amendments to its Risk Management Program (RMP), which includes a host of safety requirements for ammonia (R717) refrigeration, among other industries using hazardous chemicals.

The amendments, encapsulated in the “Safer Communities by Chemical Accident Prevention Rule,” include what the EPA called the “most protective safety provisions for chemical facilities in history, requiring stronger measures for prevention, preparedness, and public transparency.” It is designed “to further protect at-risk communities from chemical accidents, especially those located near facilities in industry sectors with high accident rates.”

“Many communities that are vulnerable to chemical accidents are in overburdened and underserved areas of the country,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan, in a statement. “This final rule is a critical piece of the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to advancing environmental justice by putting in place stronger safety requirements for industrial facilities and new measures to protect communities from harm.”

The new rule comes in the wake of the recent checkered history of the RMP, which the EPA introduced in 1996. In January 2017, the “RMP Amendments Final Rule” issued new requirements for prevention, response and public disclosure of information, but key provisions were paused, and most never went into effect. Instead, in 2019, the “RMP Reconsideration Final Rule” rescinded or modified some of the measures in the 2017 rule. The 2019 RMP rule was part of the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back industry regulations.

The new RMP rule closely follows a proposed rule released in August 2022. That proposal prompted a letter to the EPA from five industry trade groups objecting to some of the provisions related to ammonia refrigeration.

Highlights of the new rule include:

  • Requiring a safer technologies and alternatives analysis and, in some cases, implementation of reliable safeguard measures for certain facilities in industry sectors with high accident rates.
  • Advancing employee participation, training and opportunities for employee decision-making in facility accident prevention.
  • Reiterating the allowance of a partial or complete process shutdown in the event of a potential catastrophic release.
  • Implementing a process to allow employees and their representatives to anonymously report specific unaddressed hazards.
  • Requiring third-party compliance audits and root cause analysis incident investigation for facilities that have had a prior accident.
  • Enhancing facility planning and preparedness efforts to strengthen emergency response by ensuring chemical release information is shared in a timely manner with local responders, and a community notification system is in place to warn the community of any impending release.
  • Emphasizing the requirement for regulated facilities to evaluate risks of natural hazards and climate change, including any associated loss of power.

The rule will be published alongside a query tool that will allow people to access information for RMPs in nearby communities. More information on the rule is available at the EPA’s Risk Management Program rule website.

Industry objections

The five trade groups that signed the 2022 letter critiquing the proposed RMP rule were the American Frozen Food Institute, the Global Cold Chain Alliance, the International Institute of Ammonia (now All-Natural) Refrigeration (IIAR), the North American Meat Institute and the Refrigerating Engineers and Technicians Association.

“IIAR does not agree with many aspects of the rule and believes that the current rules are generally sufficient for our industry,” the trade group said in an email to its members that publicly unveiled the EPA letter.

In the letter, the trade groups pointed out that the EPA was enacting rules to phase down the use of HFC refrigerants pursuant to the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act, adding their concern that the proposed RMP rule “could dissuade some companies from moving away from HFCs and moving to natural refrigerants like ammonia.”

As they had in the past, the ammonia refrigeration trade groups objected strenuously in their letter to the proposed RMP rules regarding the need for third-party audits to be conducted by independent organizations.

“The proposal to restrict which auditors could be used after an accident is concerning,” said the trade group letter, adding, “The use of any qualified auditor should be at the discretion of the facility, including those who may be associated with the company, for such audits.”

“This final rule is a critical piece of the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to advancing environmental justice by putting in place stronger safety requirements for industrial facilities and new measures to protect communities from harm.”

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan

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