Groups Sue Over Weak Emission Standards for Chemical Plants Linked to Cancer

EPA’s rule for organic chemical facilities allows toxic air pollution at levels dangerous for public health


Erin Fitzgerald, Earthjustice press secretary 

Today, 11 community, scientist, environmental, and environmental justice groups represented by Earthjustice sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over a weak national emission rule for hundreds of chemical facilities whose pollution is linked to cancer. The Miscellaneous Organic Chemical Manufacturing, or MON rule, regulates toxic emissions for about 200 chemical plants across the country. These plants emit over 7,400 tons a year of dangerous air pollutants, including at least 2,000 pounds of ethylene oxide, an aggressive carcinogen. EPA updated the rule earlier this year after the national air toxics assessment showed this pollution is contributing to cancer risk hot spots in the United States.

Industrial plants covered by the MON rule handle chemicals used in the production of solvents, plastics, and pesticides. During this process, potent carcinogens, like ethylene oxide, 1,3-butadiene, benzene, formaldehyde, and other toxic fumes that people breathe, are dumped into neighboring communities. The MON rule leaves people in surrounding areas exposed to cancer risks of 200-in-1 million, twice the level EPA admits is unacceptable under the Clean Air Act.

“EPA’s recognized that communities are facing a blatantly unacceptable cancer threat from breathing toxic air every day, yet it does little to fix this problem,” said Emma Cheuse, Earthjustice attorney. “It’s unjust and wrong that the agency is again refusing to set standards that fully protect children and families living next to petrochemical sources. Now, in the middle of a respiratory pandemic, communities have to take EPA to court to ensure that chemical plants use up-to-date pollution controls, and common-sense fenceline monitoring for the toxic air they release into nearby neighborhoods.”

MON facilities are located around the U.S., but especially concentrated in Texas and Louisiana, and disproportionately affect Black, Latino, and low-income communities. Other states with MON facilities include West Virginia, Illinois, and South Carolina. EPA’s MON rule allows periodic, uncontrolled releases of chemical pollution, while communities need around-the-clock protection from toxic air. This rule allows facilities to spew fugitive emissions into communities without monitoring, and permits facilities to do so repeatedly, even if pollution levels are too high.

“Our neighborhoods are not sacrifice zones for petrochemical companies. EPA’s national air toxics standards must be the strongest necessary to prevent cancers that EPA itself says the pollution from these chemical plants can cause. Those of us in Louisiana have seen first-hand the type of harm this type of pollution can do to communities,” said Sharon Lavigne, founder of RISE St. James.

As communities push for monitoring and stronger rules for chemical plants, the petrochemical industry is expanding in places like Cancer Alley in Louisiana, which is already facing elevated cancer levels due to industrial fumes. In fact, Formosa Plastics’ petrochemical complex in St. James Parish is still on the table while RISE St. James and their partners are fighting its illegal permits in Louisiana state court. The complex would include 14 plants just one mile from an elementary school in a predominantly Black neighborhood. A weak MON chemical plant rule is disastrous for the health of St. James Parish, particularly if plans for the Formosa complex are allowed to proceed.

EPA has known of the pollution and extreme health harms associated with MON plants for years; still, it chose inaction. According to federal law, EPA was supposed to review and update the national MON standards by 2014, but years later, the agency had still failed to meet the deadline. Communities affected by these emissions represented by Earthjustice, forced EPA to finish the rule through litigation and in 2017 a court ordered EPA to review and update this rule.

Earthjustice is representing RISE St. James, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, TX Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), Air Alliance Houston, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, Environmental Integrity Project, Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Sierra Club. These groups have also filed a petition for reconsideration with EPA. RISE St. James, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and allied groups, represented by Earthjustice, are also fighting the illegal and dangerous air permits Louisiana issued to Formosa Plastics, and challenging another rule (ethylene production) that would apply to Formosa Plastics and similar petrochemical facilities as illegally weak.

More Quotes from our Clients:

“It is morally reprehensible that EPA is treating certain communities as disposable and left to suffer unacceptable cancer threats from exposure to petrochemical pollution. We will continue to fight to ensure that EPA’s national air toxics standards are as strong as possible to save lives and prevent illnesses that EPA should not allow communities to face just because they live near chemical plants,” said Michele Roberts, national co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform.

“Today’s suit is a step toward righting a grievous wrong. This administration’s weak MON rule does little to protect our health and instead leaves our communities at serious risk of cancer, both by the enormous emissions it allows and by pretending to be protective when in fact it’s just the opposite. We are all at risk from these emissions, but Black people in Louisiana are in the bullseye. It’s past time to change this situation, and we are filing suit today to do just that,” said Anne Rolfes, LA Bucket Brigade.

“We cannot applaud EPA for doing what it thinks is the bare minimum, because the agency is not even doing what it knows is needed to protect people’s health, based on the best available science. EPA also cannot avoid ensuring that facilities use up-to-date pollution controls, and practices, including real-time fenceline monitoring, to protect public health. People in Texas deserve the strongest protection available for our health,” said Juan Parras, t.e.j.a.s Executive Director.

“The EPA rule does not go far enough to reduce toxic air pollution and goes too far in allowing loopholes, including an unlimited number of so-called unforeseeable accidents known as force majeure. The problem is not acts of God, it is acts of man,” said Louis Zeller, Executive Director of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

“EPA missed an opportunity in the MON rule to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to reduce the chemical burden on environmental justice communities exposed to the highest emissions of hazardous pollutants, including ethylene oxide. The science supports stronger action to limit emissions and expand monitoring for communities who continue to experience oppression due to social, health, and environmental disparities exacerbated by a global pandemic. EPA may be willing to abandon its mission and leave communities behind, but we won’t allow it,” said Genna Reed, Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The EPA knows how many plastic/petrochemical and other factories are spewing their pollution onto communities predominantly populated by people of color. The EPA knows that people living near these plants are going to have a dramatically increased risk of cancer because of the pollution. But it is clear that this EPA doesn’t care at all about harm to our communities. It really is a travesty that we have to sue our Environmental Protection Agency for environmental protections that the agency itself knows should be in place,” said Vivian Stockman, Executive Director at Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, based in Huntington, WV.

“Many communities face the insult of hosting more than one of these dangerous chemical facilities, yet USEPA still fails to strengthen the standards needed to protect communities from toxic air emissions they are releasing, which can cause particular harm to children and to women at risk of breast cancer,” said Jane Williams, Chair of the Sierra Club National Clean Air Team.

Petrochemical facility
Smoke stacks and distillation towers at a large petrochemical plant are silhouetted against the golden evening sky. (iStock)

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