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EPA and OSHA Continue Aggressive Enforcement of Accidental Chemical Releases

June 29, 2020

Accidental chemical releases in the workplace and offsite into the environment continue to be a high-priority enforcement area for both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Labor’s OSHA, including releases of anhydrous ammonia and other toxic and flammable substances under the agencies’ RMP and PSM programs.

Although both federal agencies have faced criticism the past few years for an alleged lack of environmental and workplace safety oversight in favor of enforcement discretion and compliance assistance – particularly recently in the wake of COVID-19 – the same cannot be said for EPA’s and OSHA’s enforcement emphasis for accidental chemical releases.  Indeed, workplace injuries and potential offsite impacts caused by an accidental chemical release, no matter how minor, are virtually guaranteed to trigger a compliance inspection by EPA and/or OSHA.

The recent spate of enforcement actions by EPA and OSHA highlight these initiatives described further below.  While some of the accidental chemical releases have made national news, others have been relatively small accidents.  The following summary represents only a snapshot of RMP and PSM enforcement cases the past six months:

Under EPA’s Chemical Accident Prevention Program under CAA Section 112(r), facilities that use or store more than a threshold quantity of “regulated substances” in a covered process are required to develop a Risk Management Plan (RMP) and undertake activities to prevent and minimize accidental releases.  Similarly, OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) program sets forth elements to prevent unplanned releases of “highly hazardous chemicals” that have the potential to cause a catastrophic incident.  Colloquially, OSHAs PSM program is designed to protect workplace employees “inside the fence line,” whereas EPA’s RMP program is designed to safeguard community members “outside the fence line.”

Both EPA and OSHA currently prioritize compliance and enforcement under the respective programs.  “Reducing Accidental Releases at Industrial and Chemical Facilities” is one of the six EPA’s current National Compliance Initiatives and has been a focus area for a number of years.  And since 2017, OSHA has implemented a “National Emphasis Program” on PSM Covered Chemical Facilities.

This post was drafted by Andrew Brought, an attorney in the Kansas City, MO office of Spencer Fane LLP. For more information, visit