A chemical disaster occurred almost every day in 2023
Petrochemical incidents aren't always as visible as the East Palestine train derailment, but at least 322 happened last year.
Climate policy obstructionists love to evangelize about the benefits of petrochemicals.
Last year, in commercials and Congressional hearings alike, the fossil fuel industry and its political allies upped their messaging around the chemical byproducts of oil and gas, calling petrochemicals “essential to life,” and warning it would be dangerous to phase them out or transition to greener alternatives.
What proponents consistently did not mention, however, was that petrochemicals were leaking, exploding, and catching fire all over the country last year, causing disastrous consequences multiple times per week.
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There were at least 322 hazardous chemical incidents in the U.S. in 2023, according to the Chemical Incident Tracker, a database of media-reported accidental chemical releases compiled by the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters. That’s around a 70 percent increase in media-reported chemical incidents since 2022, when the coalition recorded only 189 disasters.
Out of the 322 chemical incidents reported last year, 138 caused either injury, evacuation, a shelter-in-place order, or death, according to the database. Put another way, a chemical incident caused serious consequences in the U.S. about once every two-and-a-half days in 2023.
The majority of last year’s chemical incidents involved fossil fuels and fossil fuel-derived products. At least 47 incidents occurred directly at oil and gas extraction sites, while 83 incidents occurred at plastic and petrochemical manufacturing sites, according to the database. At least 48 chemical incidents occurred in transport, like the infamous East Palestine, Ohio train derailment, which spilled the petrochemical vinyl chloride. And at least 39 chemical incidents occurred at food and beverage storage facilities, most of which involved leakage of ammonia, a particularly toxic petrochemical that is responsible for about 1 to 2 percent of global carbon emissions.
At least 18 people died last year in chemical incidents. Lives claimed by petrochemical disasters in 2023 include a 25-year-old Illinois wrestling coach who was killed by an asphalt tank explosion; an Illinois father and his two young children who were killed by ammonia exposure after a semitruck derailed; and a 55-year-old father who was “burned alive” after a “petrochemical event” at the Marathon Petroleum refinery he worked at, according to a lawsuit filed by his family.
The data is important, activists say, because the petrochemical and chemical industries regularly downplay the harm their products inflict on communities. “The chemical industry consistently claims that incidents at hazardous facilities are isolated events,” said Deidre Nelms, the communications manager at environmental justice nonprofit Coming Clean, which helps manage the database. “But our data show that fires, explosions and releases involving hazardous chemicals are happening on a near daily basis.”
Still, the number of chemical incidents recorded by the Chemical Incident Tracker is almost certainly an underestimate, as it contains only disasters reported by national and local media. The coalition tracks incidents this way because publicly-available government data of chemical incidents in the U.S. is “very delayed, limited, and hard to find,” Nelms said—in part because each state has different reporting systems and requirements.
It is possible, then, that the increased number of chemical incidents in 2023 also reflects increased media attention to the issue. That would make sense, given the massive virality of the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment story in early 2023. Perhaps, in light of that story, more news editors across the country began to see that chemical incidents aren’t just newsworthy on their own—they also drive clicks, ratings, and engagement.
Depressing as that incentive structure is, it does mean that climate policy obstructionists have less room to hide in 2024. The more attention media pays to hazardous petrochemical releases, the more tone-deaf those commercials about how petrochemicals keep us safe and healthy sound.
Activists also hope that the more attention is paid to chemical disasters, the more people will demand stronger chemical regulation in 2024. This year, the EPA is expected to finalize the Safer Communities by Chemical Accident Prevention rule, which would bulk up accident prevention requirements for chemical facilities—and a fight over the outcome is brewing. A group of Democratic lawmakers are calling on the EPA to strengthen the rule before its finalization, asking for more involvement from workers and more requirements to take climate disaster risk into account. And Republicans are calling for a weakening of the rule, citing “economic challenges and operational burdens” for manufacturers.
That rule is expected to be finalized early this year—by which time the U.S. will have experienced dozens of hazardous chemical incidents; at least if the 2023 rate continues apace.
How to protect yourself from a toxic chemical incident. A sobering but necessary article from The Texas Tribune about what to do if you live near a toxic chemical facility.
Key quote: “The EPA maintains a database of industrial facilities that must report how they manage toxic chemicals. To see where such facilities are located near you, use the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, and search by your metropolitan area or community profile.”
Yes, it’s possible to produce petrochemicals without fossil fuels. A webinar from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a non-partisan D.C. think tank, explores the possibilities of a petrochemical transition.
Key quote: “Manufacturing of plastics and other petrochemicals is on track to become the leading market for fossil fuels in the next three decades and a major contributor to climate change. It’s possible to produce these valuable materials without fossil fuels—biological systems have been making complex chemicals from water and air at ambient temperatures for three billion years.”
In ‘Cancer Alley’, US chemical giants mount campaign against grassroots organizers. Partnering with the Guardian, our friends at Floodlight News report that petrochemical manufacturers have created a group to counter activists advocating on behalf of residents in “Cancer Alley,” a petrochemical facility-laden area of Louisiana where cancer rates are so high that international human rights groups have expressed concern.
Key quote: “The group consists of about 60 representatives, including from Chevron, Dow, Entergy, BASF and ExxonMobil, alongside leaders of parishes in Cancer Alley. …. The [group], according to documents shared with Floodlight, says the opposition comes from a ‘small universe of vocal industry opponents’ that have caught the media’s attention and are creating an echo chamber of misinformation. Asked to characterize the misinformation, Wolfe said, in general, the activist groups and the media focus ‘only on the negative, and not on the positive impacts of industry on jobs, or on improving environmental outcomes.’”
Catch of the Day: Reader Tom loves to take out books from the library—and his housemate Betty loves to destroy them. Oops!
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*Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Diedre Nelms’s last name.
*Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the expected final date of the Chemical Accident Prevention Rule. It is early this year, not in August.