Today, a federal court issued a consent decree ordering the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine whether to update pollution limits for Group I Polymers and Resins facilities. These types of facilities manufacture synthetic rubber used to make products like wetsuits, gaskets and seals, hoses and tubing, plumbing fixtures, as well as adhesives. In the process, facilities emit hazardous air pollutants such as ethylene oxide and chloroprene, which can cause cancer if people are exposed.
“Fenceline communities live daily with the health consequences of toxic air pollution from Group I Polymers and Resins facilities, including extraordinarily high cancer risk,” said Deena Tumeh, Earthjustice attorney. “Strengthening pollution limits is essential to protecting public health. We expect EPA to live up to its promise to advance environmental justice and issue the strongest possible health-protective rule.”
Today’s decision is an encouraging sign and stems from a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Concerned Citizens of St. John, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, and Sierra Club in November of 2021. A federal court in Washington, D.C. entered on Wednesday the consent decree requiring EPA to perform the overdue rulemaking. This consent decree also resolves some claims from a 2020 lawsuit filed by the Environmental Integrity Project and other environmental groups concerning EPA’s air toxics standards these facilities and the need to strengthen flaring requirements. Now, EPA must propose a rule with potentially updated pollution limits by March of 2023, and a final rule by March of 2024.
“For too long, St. John has been failed by every layer of government — starting with our state’s environmental agency, to our governor, to our Congressional representatives, all the way up to several Presidential administrations,” said Robert Taylor, who lives in St. John and is a member of Concerned Citizens of St. John. “EPA must act now and protect this community facing a dire health emergency and the highest cancer risk from air pollution in the nation. EPA must also advance the core goals of environmental justice to which it has recommitted itself under the leadership of President Biden and EPA Administrator Regan.”
Many of these facilities are close to communities that are disproportionately Black, Latino, and low-income, primarily in Louisiana and Texas. In Cancer Alley, which is located alongside the Mississippi River in Louisiana, there is a neoprene facility that emits dangerous quantities of chloroprene. As a result, surrounding communities suffer the highest cancer risk from air pollution in the nation, according to EPA’s 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment. Chloroprene can also damage the nervous and cardiovascular systems and hepatic and renal function.
“Chloroprene and ethylene oxide released by industrial facilities severely negatively impact the health of community members in St. John the Baptist Parish and nearby parishes,” said Wilma Subra from Louisiana Environmental Action Network.
The Clean Air Act requires EPA to review and revise its emission standards “as necessary” at least every eight years, but EPA has not done so for these manufacturing facilities in over a decade. In that time, EPA scientists concluded that the cancer risk from ethylene oxide and chloroprene is far more severe than previously thought, leaving many communities vulnerable to serious, irreversible health problems. Citing these conclusions, EPA’s Office of Inspector General urged the agency to review and update the health risk and technology-based standards for industrial plants that emit ethylene oxide or chloroprene.
“Sierra Club is gratified with this action by EPA but it should not have been the impacted communities that have to take EPA to court for this protection,” said Darryl Malek-Wiley, Sierra Club, Senior Organizing Representative. “The communities of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley have been asking for protection from these toxins in our air for decades. We hope this is the start of a more active EPA with enforcement of current laws and strengthening the protection of communities from toxic air pollution.”
Communities demand EPA set limits on chloroprene that fully protect the health of communities and follow the well-established science, include fenceline monitoring and enforcement. The agency must also remove loopholes that allow industry to circumvent pollution limits during malfunctions.