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EPA targets toxic chemical plant emissions

Proposed rule aims to reduce hazardous air pollutants from production of organic chemicals and polymers

by Britt E. Erickson , Rick Mullin
April 6, 2023

Michael Regan looks off to the side. There is a chemical factory in the background.
Credit: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
EPA administrator Michael Regan visited St. John the Baptist Parish on a tour of environmental justice communities in 2021.

Manufacturers of synthetic organic chemicals and various polymers and resins would face stricter air emission standards under a rule proposed April 6 by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The rule would also eliminate exemptions that allow higher emissions when plants start up and shut down and when equipment malfunctions.

Facilities that use, produce, store, or emit any of six toxic chemicals—benzene, 1,3-butadiene, chloroprene, ethylene dichloride, ethylene oxide, and vinyl chloride—would also be required to monitor air emissions around their perimeter and make the data publicly available online.

If finalized, the rule would reduce more than 6,000 metric tons of hazardous air emissions each year and dramatically reduce cancer risks for people who live near about 200 synthetic organic chemical plants in the US, according to an estimate by the EPA.

The largest reductions would come from cutting ethylene oxide emissions at eight facilities in Texas and Louisiana, the EPA says. The agency estimates that the proposal will reduce ethylene oxide emissions across the US by 63% and chloroprene emissions by 74%, compared with 2020.

EPA administrator Michael Regan announced the proposal from St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, a heavily industrialized area. “For generations, our most vulnerable communities have unjustly borne the burden of breathing unsafe, polluted air,” Regan said in a news release. Citing a commitment he made on a 2021 tour of the region along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, sometimes called Cancer Alley, Regan said the proposal will impact communities “from Louisiana and Texas, to Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio. Every child in this country deserves clean air to breathe, and EPA will use every available tool to make that vision a reality.”

The proposal marks the first time in more than a decade that the EPA has updated hazardous air emissions standards. And for the first time, the agency used an approach that evaluated air emissions from all large industrial facilities combined, not just the risks of cancer from individual plants subject to the proposed rule.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents chemical manufacturers, is concerned about the EPA’s plan, singling out ethylene oxide. “Ethylene oxide plays an important role in the development of batteries for electric vehicles and is used to support agriculture as well as the oil and gas industry. Another important use of ethylene oxide is the sterilization of medical equipment,” the group says in a statement. The ACC claims that the EPA used an overly conservative value for ethylene oxide that relied on a flawed risk assessment.

Environmental justice groups are applauding the EPA’s proposal. “For us this is a historic moment,” says Beverly Wright, executive director of the New Orleans–based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. Wright praised Regan as the first EPA administrator “that came down to our communities, talked with community people, smelled the air, heard their stories, learned about the water contamination, the soil contamination, and could see the close proximity these communities have to these hazardous polluting facilities.”


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