CANCER ALLEY #1. Will EPA Require Reductions in Ethylene Oxide

by Duane Nichols on November 15, 2019

Really does look like a “cancer alley”...?

EPA to reduce emissions of carcinogenic ethylene oxide, at 13 Louisiana plants

From an Article by Mark Schleifstein, New Orleans Times – Picayune, November 8, 2019

New rules proposed this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could mandate a reduction in emissions of ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing compound produced by many chemical manufacturers in Louisiana that has come under increasing scrutiny.

The rules change comes as the Mississippi River corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans experiences a dramatic expansion of petrochemical facilities — and with it an increase in the toxic emissions they produce. A recent analysis of the region by ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate, using an EPA scientific model, shows many of the new plants are being built in neighborhoods that already have very high concentrations of toxic chemicals.

Among them: the proposed Formosa Chemicals facility in St. James Parish, which is awaiting air-permit approvals from the state Department of Environmental Quality. Formosa has proposed emitting as much as 7.7 tons a year of ethylene oxide when it opens — an amount that by itself represents nearly 7 percent of the reductions in ethylene oxide that EPA has said its new rule will achieve nationwide.

By 2022, when Formosa’s 16 facilities are expected to be completed, its permits would allow the release of 800 tons of toxic air pollutants, which would double the parish’s total emissions. In 2017, St. James already ranked 9th in the state and in the top 100 nationally for toxic air emissions.

The new ethylene oxide rule also will affect major existing facilities elsewhere in the state – including the Sasol Chemicals LLC facility in Lake Charles as well as Dow Chemical’s main facility in Plaquemine and its Union Carbide plant in St. Charles Parish.

Ethylene oxide is used in the manufacture of a number of other chemicals, including ethylene glycol, which is used as antifreeze.

Concerns raised by EPA’s internal experts about the potential health effects of the chemical’s emissions from manufacturing plants, especially its links to cancer, became big news in Louisiana in 2018, even as local and national environmental groups were fighting in court to increase its regulation.

In September 2018, EPA released a National Air Toxics Assessment report that said people living in one census tract in St. Charles Parish near the Union Carbide plant faced the highest risk in the country of developing lymphoid or breast cancers because of exposure to ethylene oxide emitted by the plant.

In announcing its new rules, EPA confirmed concerns that the chemical is more dangerous than previously thought, with exposure to even small amounts linked to several types of cancer.

There are 13 plants in Louisiana that emit reportable amounts of ethylene oxide. Of those, 11 are in the industrialized Mississippi River corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans; the other two are in the Lake Charles area.

EPA called the cancer risks posed by current ethylene oxide emissions “unacceptable” in a news release. EPA said that under the present rules, existing ethylene oxide emissions could cause 2,000 additional cancer cases for each 1 million people exposed to its air emissions.

The rule changes should reduce by 116 tons a year the air emissions of ethylene oxide and other toxic chemicals nationally from a specific category of manufacturing facilities known as “miscellaneous organic chemical manufacturing.” That would represent a 93 percent reduction in ethylene oxide and associated emissions from those facilities, according to the federal agency.

According to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, acute exposures to ethylene oxide also may result in respiratory and lung problems, headache, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath and other health issues. Chronic exposure has been associated with reproductive effects, mutagenic changes, neurotoxicity, and chemical sensitization problems in addition to cancer.

After the release of the NATA report, the state Department of Environmental Quality asked Dow officials for information about their plans to reduce ethylene oxide emissions. In January, the company told the agency that the EPA risk assessment was flawed because it was based on an initial estimate from Dow that its St. Charles Parish plant had released 15.03 tons of the carcinogen in 2014.

In fact, Dow said, it had corrected its 2014 release estimates just before the 2018 EPA report was released, and the Union Carbide plant in St. Charles had only released 10.35 tons of the chemical that year. The lower amount would have resulted in less risk of cancer under the formula used by EPA.

In its letter, Dow said a 2016 project that reduced vapor emissions during the loading of rail cars had also lowered ethylene oxide emissions at the plant by 2.64 tons a year. According to the company’s 2018 Toxics Release Inventory report, the most recent available, it released just under 4 tons of the chemical in St. Charles Parish.

Of the 13 major Louisiana chemical plants that reported significant emissions of ethylene oxide in 2018, the Sasol Chemicals LLC facility in Lake Charles emitted the most, with 8.4 tons. BASF Corp. in Geismar was next with 7.6 tons, followed by Shell Chemical in Geismar with 5.2 tons, the Union Carbide plant with 3.96 tons, and Dow’s Plaquemine chemical facility with 1.5 tons.

A DEQ spokesman said the Dow and Union Carbide plants were among 31 state facilities that received letters from DEQ last November requesting that they review ways to reduce ethylene oxide emissions. The state sent the letters in response to the EPA risk assessment report, and hinted rule changes were being considered.

DEQ spokesman Gregory Langley said only one company other than Dow responded to the letters in the year after they were sent.

That company, Georgia Pacific, told the state that its Port Hudson facility was permitted to release only 0.01 ton (20 pounds) of the chemical a year, and that its actual rate of release was only about 2 pounds a year, found in trace amounts in chemical additives and glues used in manufacturing tissue paper and towels.

The proposed EPA rules must still be published in the Federal Register and will then be subject to a 45-day public comment period. They were drafted in response to a March 2017 order by a federal judge in Washington, D.C. who ruled that EPA had illegally delayed for years the updating of its rules requiring pollution reductions under the federal Clean Air Act.

The suit prompting the order was filed in 2015 against EPA by nine environmental groups, including the Louisiana Bucket Brigade of New Orleans and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, based in Baton Rouge. The groups charged that EPA had failed to update 20 sets of Clean Air Act regulations, including the one dealing with ethylene oxide, which had not been adjusted since 2003, even though EPA was required to adjust them at least every eight years to adopt best available control methods.

The judge gave EPA three years to adopt changes in all 20 sets of regulations.

The ethylene oxide rule changes, outlined in a 314-page notice that will be published soon in the Federal Register, will require a reduction in ethylene oxide emissions, but also will require changes in requirements for flares, heat exchange systems and equipment leaks, EPA said. Those changes will reduce emissions from all hazardous air pollutants by another 260 tons, according to an EPA factsheet.

The new rules also will require reductions in the release of emissions during startups, shutdowns and malfunctions, including the elimination of exemptions in most startup and shutdown periods.

EPA says the current estimated risk of cancer from inhalation of ethylene oxide and associated chemicals is 2,000 for every 1 million people exposed, well above the agency’s general goal of reducing the risk to no more than 100 per 1 million exposed.

However an attorney for EarthJustice, a nonprofit organization that represented the environmental groups in the lawsuit, said the proposed rules will still allow industries to release ethylene oxide in amounts that would result in between 200 to 300 cancer cases per 1 million exposed — two or three times the agency’s targets.

EarthJustice attorney Emma Cheuse noted the rules also continue to allow releases of ethylene oxide resulting from so-called “force majeure” incidents, including some accidents and major storms, such as hurricanes.

“Communities in the Gulf states need protection every day, not just on sunny days,” Cheuse said.

The new rules also do not require the installation of fenceline monitoring stations that could independently determine if the companies are complying with the reduction requirements, she said. Such fenceline monitoring already has been required in the Los Angeles area by the local South Coast Air Quality Management District, but has not been required for many plants in Louisiana.

In announcing the new chemical facility rules, EPA officials said they also are still reviewing rule changes that they expect to release soon for commercial sterilization and fumigation facilities that use ethylene oxide.

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