petrochemical pollution
Night view of the refineries along the Houston Ship Channel from the Sidney Sherman Bridge 610 North. Credit: 2C2K Photography

EPA seeks to slash chemical plants’ cancer-causing emissions

Major updates to air pollution regulations could reduce frontline communities’ excess cancer risk by 96%.

In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a package of updates to the Clean Air Act that could dramatically decrease dangerous air pollution.

The proposal, which applies to roughly 80 different toxics, will enhance regulations for 218 chemical facilities across the country, cutting 6,000 tons of harmful air pollution each year.

A key mandate will require on-site air monitoring for the estimated 128 chemical plants that emit one or more of six cancer-causing pollutants, including ethylene oxide, used to sterilize medical equipment, and chloroprene, used in the manufacture of the synthetic rubber neoprene. The updated regulations stand to cut national emissions of ethylene oxide by 63% and chloroprene by 74%. Overall, frontline communities’ excess risk from inhaling these hazardous chemicals is expected to drop by 96%, the EPA indicated.

Despite the well-documented health risks of these air toxics, state and federal agencies have largely relied on plants to self-report their emissions — a system rife with abuse, advocates say. In the last three years alone, 80% of these facilities have violated environmental laws, according to an analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund. Several companies, including the chemical giants Dow, Formosa Plastics and DuPont, have committed multiple significant infractions in environmental justice communities — areas where residents are predominantly people of color or where a substantial portion live below the poverty line.

The proposed rule is “very long overdue,” Dionne Delli-Gatti, the associate vice president for community engagement at Environmental Defense Fund, told Environmental Health News (EHN).

“There has been a history of pretty significant noncompliance,” she said. “You’re not talking about the mom-and-pop shops; you’re talking about companies and facilities that are owned by large corporate conglomerates that do have the funding to ensure compliance.”

Increased monitoring, increased accountability

Mandating fenceline monitors — air pollution sensing devices located on a plant’s property line — will make it harder for chemical companies to hide their emissions, Jennifer Hadayia, executive director for Air Alliance Houston, told EHN. While regional air monitoring networks exist, they’re not designed to detect every pollutant of concern and can be many miles away from chemical facilities — making it virtually impossible to know what plants are emitting which toxics and in what amounts. “Monitors that are literally picking up the emission in real time at that facility’s perimeter,” Hadayia said, “are one of the only ways we know what is truly being emitted in our community.”

Facilities whose fenceline emissions exceed new, federally determined levels will be required to find leaks and make repairs. In addition to fenceline monitoring, the EPA proposal introduces a slew of other changes and additions to the Clean Air Act. These include rules to reduce emissions from flaring — which occurs when chemical plants burn air toxics to destroy them — and improved regulations for dioxins and furans, highly toxic substances emitted from chemical plants and other sources.

The new proposal, an EPA spokesperson told EHN via email, would also “remove general exemptions from emissions control requirements during periods of startup, shutdown and malfunction.” In Texas, Hadayia explained, companies are currently allowed to exceed their permitted air pollution levels for any length of time during emergencies or repairs — events left to companies to define or report. “That emergency situation doesn't have to be proven. It doesn't have to be documented,” Hadayia said.

Communities at risk

petrochemical plants Houston

EPA’s proposed rules apply to a subset of petrochemical facilities--an estimated 218 plants nationwide.

Credit: Clear Collaborative

While the affected facilities are located across the country, major clusters are found in Louisiana and Texas. Of the chemical plants regulated under the EPA proposal, 15% are in Houston alone, Hadayia said. Houston is home to nearly half of U.S. petrochemical capacity and is the nation’s third-largest hotspot for cancer-causing air pollution, according to the investigative reporting outlet ProPublica.

Along the Houston Ship Channel, a dense concentration of oil refineries, plastic manufacturing facilities and other chemical plants exposes residents to a hazardous mix of air toxics. In cities along this corridor, such as La Porte and Port Neches, excess cancer risk ranges from three to six times EPA-determined limits, ProPublica found.

Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” however, has the grim distinction of having the nation’s highest levels of carcinogen-laced air. Residents of some parts of this chemical corridor, an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, are subject to a cumulative cancer risk 47 times what the EPA considers acceptable, ProPublica reports. Industrial emissions in Louisiana are seven to 21 times higher in communities of color, according to a 2022 report. A related 2022 study found that the state’s impoverished and Black communities face measurably higher cancer rates from air pollution.

Residents in affected areas can learn more about their cancer risk from ethylene oxide, chloroprene and other air pollutants, as well how this rule will impact local chemical facilities, by viewing an interactive map put together by the Environmental Defense Fund. Fenceline monitoring data will be publicly available through the EPA’s WebFIRE database.

“I think that probably the most important aspect of this rule is giving frontline communities, and agencies as well, the information necessary to ensure stronger protections and to ensure compliance,” said Delli-Gatti.

The new EPA proposal is inspired in part by a 2015 rule that requires petroleum refineries to implement fenceline monitoring for benzene, a hazardous chemical linked to leukemia and bone marrow damage, among other risks. Benzene concentrations have dropped an average of 30% since the program began, “illustrating that fenceline monitoring is an effective tool in reducing emissions on an ongoing basis,” an EPA spokesperson said.

In a statement, the industry trade group American Chemistry Council expressed concerns about the proposed ethylene oxide limits, saying “conservative regulations on ethylene oxide could threaten access to products ranging from electric vehicle batteries to sterilized medical equipment.” The ACC said it is reviewing the EPA’s proposal and will be active in the public comment and review process.

For Hadayia, these updated regulations are crucial for protecting frontline communities in Houston and beyond. “There aren't a lot of things we can prevent in this world,” Hadayia said. “But if we can prevent carcinogens going into the air, then we have an obligation to do so. We believe industry has an obligation to do so as well.”

Interested in the EPA's proposal and want to be heard? Public comments on the new regulations can be submitted on the EPA’s website until July 7. The agency expects to issue a final rule in March of next year.

environmental justice

LISTEN: Robbie Parks on why hurricanes are getting deadlier

"In places where there are high minority populations they bear, by far, the most burden of deaths from tropical cyclones."

Dr. Robbie Parks joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast for a bonus episode to discuss how hurricanes have become deadlier in recent years and how we can better protect vulnerable communities.

Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
portuguese children lawsuit climate
Photo by João Alves on Unsplash

Six young activists devote years to climate fight with 32 governments. Now comes their day in court

Six Portuguese children and young adults are set to take 32 European governments to court Wednesday for what they say is a failure to adequately address human-caused climate change in a violation of their human rights.
arrows climate impacts

Ancient arrow is among artifacts to emerge from Norway’s melting ice

As the earth warms, glacial archaeologists are in a race against time to preserve objects before they are destroyed by the elements. Recent field work yielded a surprisingly intact 3,000-year-old arrow.
green restoration wisconsin housing
Photo by Laura Kessler on Unsplash

U.S. housing crisis thwarts recruitment for nature-based infrastructure projects

Even when the funding is lined up for green restoration efforts in northern Wisconsin, a lack of affordable housing makes it hard to attract workers and get started.

cool pavement heat island climate

Reflective pavements tackle urban heat — but also make pedestrians hotter

Cool pavement has been touted as the next big infrastructure fix to combat heat islands. But researchers find that sometimes, it can also make people hotter.

The Joint Commission launches certification in sustainability for U.S. hospitals

The Joint Commission, accreditor of U.S. healthcare facilities, is rolling out a voluntary certification in sustainability as hospitals look to combat climate change.
german lithium mining energy
Photo by Angel Barnes on Unsplash

The east German town at the centre of the new ‘gold rush’ … for lithium

It has been called the new gold rush – a rush to catch up with China in producing and refining the materials needed in everything from computers to cars: but has it come too late to save Europe’s car industry?

From our Newsroom
children nature

Opinion: When kids feel the magic of nature, they will want to protect it

Improving our quality of life starts with the simple of act of getting kids outdoors.

birds climate change

In the Gulf of Maine, scientists race to save seabirds threatened by climate change

“I could see that, if successful, the methods developed could likely help these species."

fracking economics

Appalachia’s fracking counties are shedding jobs and residents: Study

The 22 counties that produce 90% of Appalachian natural gas lost a combined 10,339 jobs between 2008 and 2021.

Marathon Petroleum y una ciudad de Texas muestran una  potencial crisis de comunicaciones sobre sustancias químicas

Marathon Petroleum y una ciudad de Texas muestran una potencial crisis de comunicaciones sobre sustancias químicas

En los últimos tres años, Marathon ha violado repetidamente la ley de Aire Limpio y tuvo tres emergencias en el semestre de febrero a julio de 2023.

WATCH: How Marathon Petroleum and one Texas city show the potential for a chemical communication crisis

WATCH: How Marathon Petroleum and one Texas city show the potential for a chemical communication crisis

Marathon in Texas City has repeatedly violated the Clean Air Act and had three emergencies in the span of a six month period.

air pollution heart attack

ER visits for heart problems plummeted after Pittsburgh coal processor shut down

Levels of one highly-toxic pollutant fell by 90% and ER visits for heart problems decreased by 42% immediately after the shutdown.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.