EPA rejects Texas’s attack on science, aiming for stronger toxic air pollution limits

Curbing ethylene oxide emissions is necessary to stop cancer hot spots in Louisiana and Texas


Erin Fitzgerald, Earthjustice, efitzgerald@earthjustice.org 

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it would reaffirm the use of the more protective 2016 peer-reviewed cancer risk value for ethylene oxide, a highly hazardous air pollutant linked to cancer. EPA plans to reject the factor Texas set to regulate its industrial polluters, and will take public comments on its scientific proposal, as it reconsiders the Miscellaneous Organic Chemical Manufacturing (MON) rule the previous administration published.

MON and other ethylene oxide-emitting chemical facilities are located around the U.S., but are especially concentrated in Texas and Louisiana. They disproportionately affect Black, Latino, and low-income communities. Other states with MON facilities include West Virginia, Illinois, and South Carolina. There will be a 45-day public comment period on today’s proposal.

“Today’s announcement shows science and facts matter, and sends ripples of hope out to people breathing ethylene oxide every day, who are also seeking far more urgent and concrete action from EPA,“ said Emma Cheuse, Earthjustice attorney. “Following the science is an essential step on the path toward reliable public health protection, and underscores the need for strong action now, like fenceline monitoring, immediate pollution reductions, and other robust new restrictions on chemical facilities, as called for by fenceline communities for years.”

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 current 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.

The MON rule also allows uncontrolled releases of chemical pollution cloaked as malfunctions or “force majeure” events. But communities need around-the-clock protection from toxic air, especially in the Gulf, which constantly faces severe weather disasters due to climate change. This rule allows facilities to spew fugitive emissions into communities without fenceline monitoring, and permits facilities to do so repeatedly, even if pollution levels are too high, as industry abuses loopholes. Community and environmental groups have petitioned EPA to end malfunction loopholes, to require fenceline monitoring, and to further restrict toxic emissions. EPA has not yet addressed that petition.

Earthjustice and partners in the Gulf have also called for other urgent actions, including a stop to new petrochemical complexes like Formosa Plastics complex in St. James, Louisiana; for chemical polluters and commercial sterilizers to be railed in with stronger air toxics rules that include fenceline monitoring; and address the cumulative harms ethylene oxide, chloroprene, and other cancer-causing air pollution puts on communities living near chemical facilities. And given the listening sessions EPA held with communities in 2021, communities urge EPA to establish a robust new risk management program rule that finally prevents industrial chemical disasters.

Earthjustice represents community, scientist, environmental, and environmental justice groups in litigation over the air toxics emission standards for chemical manufacturers that emit ethylene oxide. Groups include RISE St. James, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, TX Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), Air Alliance Houston, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Sierra Club. The Environmental Integrity Project is also part of this challenge.

Quotes from our clients:

“We applaud EPA for starting to move forward to protect people’s health, based on the best available science, as Gulf communities urgently need strong new health protections and enforcement. To meaningfully address environmental justice, EPA must follow up to ensure that facilities use up-to-date pollution controls that have no loopholes for malfunctions or so-called force majeure events, which are a particular problem in our hurricane-prone area and must require fenceline air monitoring around all the chemical facilities, to protect families from cancer-causing emissions. This action cannot wait any longer. We look forward to working with Administrator Regan to help bring real protection from the cumulative harm of air pollution to communities like Manchester and others that border the Houston Ship Channel, all the way to Baytown,” said Juan Parras, executive director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.).

“Today is just the beginning of what needs to be done to address the issues concerning the petrochemical industry. Administrator Regan has been doing the right thing to come out and see for himself — and he showed he really cares and is listening to us, not the politicians. It’s important that EPA recognizes the need to listen to the science, which shows the destructive Formosa plastics facility should be stopped and that no other harmful chemical facilities should be allowed to cause harm in our community anymore. I’m hopeful that he will really get some things done,” said Sharon Lavigne, founder of RISE St. James.

“It is so uplifting to see this new commitment by Administrator Regan to direct EPA’s resources to areas with such a long legacy of pollution here in Louisiana and the south.  We applaud Administrator Regan’s understanding that the longstanding injustices within these communities must be addressed. Thank you, Administrator Regan, for listening, but most of all for acting. Over the decades LEAN has spent working throughout Louisiana, we have heard many promises but are optimistic this new administration will be the one to make real change and improve the lives of long-suffering residents impacted by pollution in Louisiana’s most burdened communities,” said Marylee Orr, executive director of Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

“Today’s action by EPA to reaffirm the toxicity of ethylene oxide (ETO) underscores its commitments to fenceline communities and reflects the best science on ETO’s toxicity. The other actions announced by the Administrator today to enhance monitoring and enforcement in some of the nation’s most impacted communities are to be commended and are long overdue,” said Jane Williams, chair of the Sierra Club’s National Clean Air Team.

“The announcement today from EPA that they will follow the science on ethylene oxide, increase enforcement and conduct monitoring, is a great step in the right direction towards meeting this administration’s commitments to EJ communities,” said Stephanie Herron, National Organizer for the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform. “But as yet another explosion at a chemical facility in Westlake, Louisiana, today shows, there is much more to be done. We are thankful that EPA is on the right path, and hope the actions announced today will be coupled with a strong Risk Management Plan Rule and consideration of cumulative impacts into this and all EPA rulemakings, to ensure communities like those with whom the administrator met in Texas and Louisiana, are truly protected.”

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