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August 14, 2023EPA’s actions to lower cancer-causing emissions are leaving too many communities behind

Deidre Nelms

This April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposal to significantly reduce emissions of toxic and other harmful air pollution from chemical plants, with the goal of dramatically reducing the number of people who face elevated air toxics-related cancer risks.

Specifically, EPA outlined in a press release, “facilities that make, store, use or emit ethylene oxide, chloroprene, benzene, 1,3-butadiene, ethylene dichloride or vinyl chloride would be required to monitor levels of these air pollutants entering the air at the fenceline of the facility, a requirement that would deliver on one of the commitments the Administrator made following his 2021 Journey to Justice tour. This powerful tool would help make sure EPA’s rules deliver: if annual average air concentrations of the chemicals are higher than an action level at the fenceline, owners and operators would have to find the source and make repairs.”

Coming Clean and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance (EJHA) both applauded this proposed rule, and encouraged members to submit public comments supporting its finalization. However, as our networks reviewed the details of this rule, and the list of facilities that it would actually regulate, many of our members soon realized that it wouldn’t impact all the facilities emitting cancer-causing chemicals in their neighborhoods.

EPA has been especially vocal about its efforts to lower ethylene oxide (EtO) emissions because it is the main chemical driving high regional cancer risk from air toxics in many communities across the country. EPA estimates that three of its recently proposed rules will result in a 63 percent reduction compared to nationwide estimated EtO emissions from all sources in 2020. But it is important to note that these proposed rules don’t apply to all facilities that use, store, or manufacture ethylene oxide, including several that have reported major chemical disasters.

Union Carbide in Institute, West Virginia; Croda Inc. in New Castle, Delaware; and Harcros Chemicals in Kansas City, Kansas all emit significant amounts of ethylene oxide, but will be subject to no new regulatory action if the EPA’s proposed rules are finalized.

There are certainly many other facilities that are also falling through the cracks of pending regulations. These three facilities are intended to serve only as a snapshot illustrating major gaps in EPA’s plans to reduce cancer-causing emissions and to highlight additional rulemaking actions that the agency should take as soon as possible to fulfill its environmental justice promises.

Union Carbide: Institute, West Virginia 

Institute is a majority Black community near Charleston, West Virginia. It has been called a “sacrifice zone,” due to its high concentration of hazardous facilities that have long polluted the air, water and soil. Facilities in the surrounding Kanawha County – dubbed “Chemical Valley” by locals – continue to harm resident health today by regularly emitting carcinogenic chemicals and reporting frequent chemical fires, explosions and toxic releases.

Most notably, the Union Carbide facility (now entirely owned by Dow Chemical), in Institute, WV is a huge driver of high cancer risk from ethylene oxide and other hazardous air emissions. In 2021, the company released 821 lbs of EtO air emissions, according to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory. The area within and around the Union Carbide plant fence line has an “excess” cancer risk from industrial air pollution of 1 in 280, or 36 times the level the EPA considers “acceptable,” according to a 2021 analysis by ProPublica. (And it should be noted, calculations of “excess” cancer risk do not factor in the decades of prior EtO emissions from this facility, and problematically imply that there are levels of “acceptable” cancer risk.)

But Union Carbide in Institute is not covered by any of the EPA’s proposed rules intended to lower ethylene oxide emissions, because these rules only apply to certain synthetic organic chemical manufacturers and commercial sterilization facilities that emit EtO. Union Carbide uses ethylene oxide to manufacture polyether polyols, which are used to make lubricants, adhesives, sealants, cosmetics, soaps, and feedstock polymers. Polyether polyol manufacturing constitutes a different source category of air pollution under the Clean Air Act’s National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP).

Union Carbide will not be required to conduct air monitoring or lower its emissions unless the EPA takes additional action to update its hazardous air pollution standards for polyether polyols facilities. These standards have not been updated since 2014. Chemical Valley-based EJHA affiliate People Concerned About Chemical Safety and other organizations recently notified EPA Administrator Michael Regan of their intent to sue, due to the EPA’s failure to review and revise this rule before March 27, 2022 as required by the Clean Air Act. 

“EPA must not delay justice any further for our communities,” said Dr. Maya Nye, Federal Policy Director of Coming Clean and community member with People Concerned About Chemical Safety at an EPA public hearing held on May 16th. “EPA must issue proposed changes to the Polyether Polyols, Chemical Manufacturing Area Sources, and Hospital Sterilizers source categories as soon as possible, before the end of this summer. We've been waiting for far too long! I just hope action is taken soon enough for my elders who are still living to benefit from their protections.” 

Croda Inc: New Castle, Delaware 

Along the Route 9 corridor, which extends south of Wilmington, Delaware, communities are surrounded by interstate highways and concentrated clusters of Superfund sites, hazardous waste facilities, and facilities that manufacture hazardous chemicals. Poor air quality and airborne dust in the area contribute to disproportionately high rates of asthma and a life-expectancy lower than 96% of other American census tracts, as shown by the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool.

The Croda facility in New Castle, Delaware is covered by the EPA’s Risk Management Program and uses large amounts of ethylene oxide to manufacture surfactants, which are used in some soaps, detergents, cosmetics and pesticides. In 2018, Croda leaked thousands of pounds of highly flammable ethylene oxide due to a faulty gasket, causing city officials to shut down the Delaware Memorial Bridge for seven hours over a busy holiday weekend. In 2021, the Croda facility reported releasing 954 lbs of ethylene oxide air emissions, according to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory. In the census block experiencing the greatest emissions from the Croda chemical plant along the Delaware river, residents face a disproportionate cancer risk of 70 cases in a million people from ethylene oxide, according to EPA modeling. 

Despite Croda’s history of chemical disasters, high levels of fugitive ethylene oxide emissions, and repeated permit violations, it will not be impacted by any of EPA’s proposed rules intended to lower cancer risk from ethylene oxide. Several of the EPA’s proposed updates to National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants only apply to “major sources'' of hazardous air pollution, i.e. facilities that have the potential to emit more than 10 tons per year of a single hazardous air pollutant or 25 tons of combined hazardous air pollutants. Facilities that fall short of this threshold, including Croda, are considered area sources of hazardous air pollution, and ethylene oxide is not one of the chemicals regulated under this area source category. This means they can legally emit several thousands of pounds of cancer-causing chemicals into the air each year.  In 2021, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General flagged this as a shortcoming of the Clean Air Act, and recommended that EPA revise the NESHAP for Chemical Manufacturing Area Sources to regulate ethylene oxide. Until that happens, Croda will be able to continue emitting ethylene oxide at its current rate, and up to 10 tons per year. 

Dora Williams, member of Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice, spoke up with an important message for EPA at its May 16 public hearings: “We thank you for the fenceline monitoring that you are proposing today. However, I am from New Castle, Delaware, home of the Croda ethylene oxide plant… and the Croda plant is not covered by this rule. We believe that no source of pollution that is going to cause cancer or health risk is acceptable, so we’re hoping that soon you’ll look across the board and see that monitoring is needed no matter the source category.”

EPA should be using all the tools at its disposal to get cancer-causing emissions down to zero. As recommended by the EPA Office of Inspector General, it can further protect communities by strengthening its rules for Chemical Manufacturing Area Sources, which haven’t been updated since 2012. These standards should be updated to require facilities like Croda to cut their ethylene oxide emissions and conduct fenceline air monitoring to ensure these emissions trend towards zero as soon as possible.

Harcros Chemicals, Kansas City, Kansas 

The Armourdale community in Kansas City, Kansas is a majority Latina/o neighborhood surrounded by railroads, highways and industrial development. Proximity to rail and heavy industry has long exposed Armourdale residents to dangerous levels of fine particulate matter, contributing to high asthma rates and a life expectancy that is lower than 93% of other census tracts, according to data included in the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. A 2016 study of local health outcomes found that residents in Armourdale live an average of 20 years less than residents in other Wyandotte County neighborhoods to their west.

Harcros Chemicals Inc. is located across the Kansas River from Armourdale, and receives large quantities of ethylene oxide by railcar. According to its most recent Risk Management Plan, a worst-case scenario at Harcros could result in a release of 175,150 lbs of flammable and carcinogenic ethylene oxide gas across a distance of 6 miles, potentially requiring the evacuation of 190,000 people, including public school students and hospital patients. It would also require the closure of highly trafficked sections of Interstates 70 and 635.

According to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, Harcros released a total of 4,282 lbs of ethylene oxide in 2021. Despite using and storing nearly two hundred thousand pounds of ethylene oxide on site, and releasing thousands of pounds of the chemical into the environment several years in a row, Harcros will not be impacted by any of the EPA’s proposed ethylene oxide rules to date because, like Croda, it is not counted as a major source of hazardous air pollution under the Clean Air Act. 

As mentioned, the EPA could lower cancer-causing emissions at Harcros by updating its rule for Chemical Manufacturing Area Sources to regulate ethylene oxide and reduce cancer-causing emissions from area sources. EPA could also further strengthen its recently proposed Risk Management Program (RMP) rule, which is intended to prevent chemical disasters. Members of the Kansas City-based EJ organization CleanAirNow have called for improvements to this rule, including enhanced community notification in multiple languages during emergencies.

In finalizing an RMP rule, EPA has the power to require facilities like Harcros to consider and report on safer technology and alternatives that it could be using to remove or minimize chemical and process hazards. If facilities like Harcros were required to conduct a Safer Technology and Alternatives Analysis (STAA), they would have to identify non-or-less hazardous materials, chemicals and processes that could be substituted to remove hazards, as well as opportunities to minimize the amount of hazardous materials stored on site. Minimizing these harms at the source could also help minimize harm in the downstream supply chain.

It is entirely possible to manufacture surfactants, (an agent in some soaps, detergents and cosmetics that make them foam and spread), without using ethoxylated ingredients (i.e. ingredients made using ethylene oxide), as shown by the EPA’s Safer Chemical Ingredients List.  But EPA’s proposed updates to the RMP rule do not require Harcros chemicals to identify opportunities to reduce or eliminate ethylene oxide in its processes, and it exempts the vast majority of covered facilities from having to conduct a STAA as well. 

If EPA is serious about reducing cancer-causing emissions to zero, it should:


    1. Revise and strengthen the Polyether Polyols rule to require fenceline air monitoring and emissions reductions for additional facilities that release cancer-causing chemicals into the environment. 
    2. Revise and strengthen the Chemical Manufacturing Area Sources rule to regulate ethylene oxide and require toxic emissions reductions at facilities that harm community health, but don’t meet the extremely high threshold of having the potential to emit 10 tons of a single HAP or 25 tons of multiple HAPs over the single calendar year.
    3. Finalize the strongest possible Risk Management Program rule, to require all hazardous facilities covered by the RMP to conduct a Safer Technology and Alternatives Analysis, conduct realtime fenceline air monitoring, and require other common-sense hazard reduction measures that have been recommended by Coming Clean and EJHA as well as members and allies of the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters.

No risk of cancer or other health harm is acceptable. Environmental Justice requires striving for zero hazardous emissions. It is irresponsible for EPA to claim that it has “delivered” on promises made on Michael Regan’s Journey to Justice tour when so many facilities will still be allowed to emit cancer-causing chemicals into our communities.