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Government Moves to Limit Deadly Emissions from Chemical Plants

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed updated pollution rules for some of the most harmful air pollutants emitted by chemical manufacturing plants. The rulemaking comes after years of pressure from Earthjustice’s community partners to halt cancer-causing emissions in their communities.

The proposed rules set standards for the largest emitters of two deadly pollutants: chloroprene and ethylene oxide.

  • The EPA’s new rules target the highest-polluting chemical plants that manufacture raw materials to make plastics, synthetic clothing, and other fossil fuel-dependent products.
  • Chloroprene is a colorless, volatile liquid used to make neoprene, a material used in products like wetsuits. In 2010, the EPA concluded that long-term exposure to chloroprene emissions increases the risk of developing cancer over the course of a lifetime.
  • Ethylene oxide is a colorless, flammable gas used to sterilize medical equipment and as a base for chemicals that form antifreeze, plastics, detergents, and adhesives. It is one of the most toxic air pollutants that the EPA regulates. Long-term exposure causes damage to the nervous system and increases people’s risk of developing cancer, leukemia, and other terminal illnesses.

EPA’s rules are a response to pressure from Earthjustice lawsuits.

  • Under the Clean Air Act, the government must revise its air toxics standards for every category of polluting industry — including these high-polluting chemical plants in the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturing Industry (or SOCMI) — every eight years. Yet the EPA hadn’t revised the SOCMI standards for these deadly emissions for more than fifteen years.
  • Earthjustice sued the EPA in 2020 on behalf of several advocacy groups, arguing that it was dodging its obligation under the Clean Air Act.
  • In the years that the EPA failed to revise its regulations on chemical emissions, communities suffered from exposure to harmful air pollutants. More so, the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the harm these communities experienced, as studies showed that the virus was particularly deadly for populations with severe air pollution.
  • Last year, our legal efforts paid off: in response to our lawsuit, EPA agreed to update its emission standards for the heaviest-polluting plants. EPA’s proposed revisions are the result of those agreements.

Tell the EPA that standing up to polluting industries is a good thing.

  • The new rules bring some major wins for environmental justice communities, including fenceline monitoring, community risk assessments, and the removal of loopholes for polluters.
  • Fenceline monitoring will require manufacturers to measure the amount of a specific chemical in the air at their site, and to quickly repair leaks and other problems if the emissions exceed certain levels.
  • No one’s right to clean air should be compromised by government inaction. Earthjustice uses the power of the courts to compel the government to reign in big polluters who are poisoning our air and water.
Shell Convent refinery in St. James Parish, Louisiana.
Shell Convent refinery in St. James Parish, Louisiana. (Alejandro Dávila Fragoso / Earthjustice)