EPA Proposes Pollution Reductions from Cancer-Causing Chemical Plants

Millions of people live in communities bordering facilities that emit massive amounts of toxic air pollution


Zahra Ahmad, zahmad@earthjustice.org, (517) 898-0924

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed much-needed updates to two related rules under the Clean Air Act that would reduce more than 6,000 tons of the nation’s most harmful air pollution, including toxic petrochemicals ethylene oxide and chloroprene.

The proposed updates, which stem from two consent decrees EPA entered into with by environmental groups, would apply to facilities in the synthetic organic chemical manufacturing industry as well as polymer and resins manufacturing industry. Together, the rules would update emission standards for more than 200 chemical plants and eliminate illegal loopholes, which industry has taken advantage of by spewing unlimited amounts of toxic air pollution without consequence during periods of startup, shutdown, and malfunction.

The proposed rules included several notable and precedent-setting provisions. When the proposal is finalized, this will be the second time that EPA has required fenceline monitoring in an air toxics rule and the first time that EPA has required fenceline monitoring for certain highly toxic pollutants, including ethylene oxide and chloroprene. Additionally, EPA looked for the first time at the risk communities face from major facilities within 6 miles — and not just facilities in the source category in question.

“Today’s proposed air toxics standards mark a critical first step in protecting communities from our nation’s largest and most hazardous chemical plants, including emitters of ethylene oxide, chloroprene, and 1,3-butadiene.” said Earthjustice attorney Adam Kron. “These crucial standards will cover facilities across the nation, from Texas’s Gulf Coast and Louisiana’s Cancer Alley to West Virginia’s Chemical Valley. We look forward to engaging in the rulemaking process to ensure strong, updated standards that control these facilities’ toxic emissions and protect the health of community members.”

Chemical plants covered by the rules are concentrated predominantly in Texas and Louisiana — as well as Ohio, Kentucky, Alabama, Illinois, and West Virginia — and disproportionately harm Black, Latino, and low-income communities living there. Facilities use toxic chemicals, like ethylene oxide and chloroprene, to make many products like antifreeze, plastics, and wetsuits. Exposing people to toxic air pollution emitted by these chemical plants causes cancer and damages many bodily functions. In Louisiana, the community of St. John the Baptist Parish suffers from one of the nation’s highest cancer risks due to chloroprene emissions from the nearby neoprene manufacturer Denka Performance Elastomers.

Communities have been needlessly exposed to cancer-causing air pollution while waiting for EPA to fulfill its duties under the Clean Air Act.

While this rule takes positive steps, environmental and community groups intend to submit technical comments demonstrating improvements to the rule that will better protect communities. Furthermore, there is more work ahead for EPA to rein in this highly hazardous pollution, as these source categories are not the only emitters of ethylene oxide and other air toxics. Other needed actions include setting strong standards with fenceline monitoring for commercial sterilizers and chemical manufacturing area sources.

Quotes from our clients

“It’s about time. While I’m excited EPA is finally taking action to reduce these cancer-causing emissions, these proposed rules have not come fast enough,” said Concerned Citizens of St. John President Mary Hampton. “We have been praying and asking the government to protect us for more than six years. People in our community are suffering and have suffered for too long.”

“The protections that these new EPA rules propose for the petrochemical sector are long overdue,” said Jane Williams, chair of the Sierra Club National Clean Air Team. “Protecting the 250 communities in the Houston Ship Channel, Cancer Alley, and the Ohio River Valley and the dozens of other states hosting these large chemical facilities renews the promise that Congress gave to the American people in 1990 when the Clean Air Act Amendments were enacted.”

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.