EPA wants to require fenceline monitoring for air toxins at chemical plants
Cattle graze in a pasture next to the Denka Performance Elastomer facility in LaPlace, Louisiana, where U.S. Environmental Protection Agency leader Michael Regan announced proposed regulations Thursday, April 6, 2023, for toxic air emissions. The federal government has sued Denka for failing to reduce levels of chloroprene, a known carcinogen, coming from the plant. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)
LA PLACE — The nation’s top climate official came to a section of Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley” Thursday to announce the Biden administration’s proposed rules meant to reduce harmful industrial emissions and the risk they pose to communities that neighbor the sites that produce them.
This was a return trip for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency leader Michael Regan to the 86-mile stretch along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that’s home to a lengthy cluster of petrochemical producers and refineries. Numerous studies have linked higher rates of cancer among residents there to toxic exposure.
The EPA’s proposed rules update existing regulations that set emission limits for some 80 air toxins coming from chemical plants, including those that make synthetic organic chemicals and polymers.
Regan delivered his remarks yards away from the river with the Denka Performance Elastomer facility as a backdrop. The community near the plant, composed mostly of Black residents, has called out Denka for elevated levels of ethylene oxide and chloroprene, both known carcinogens.
Robert Taylor, head of Concerned Citizens of St. John Parish, said its research shows children growing up near the area’s chemical plants are exposed to a lifetime of chloroprene in a matter of months.
“We know now that our children, by the time they are 2 years old, have experienced a 70-year level,” Taylor said.
Residents of Cancer Alley, a name coined by environmental activists, have long pushed for Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) to enforce federal air standards. Climate defenders have panned the agency for being more friendly to industry than the environment, though it must uphold EPA standards.
Roger Gingles, interim LDEQ secretary, attended Regan’s announcement and said while Denka has reduced its emissions, “there may be more work to do.”
“We will continue to work to reduce emissions to the lowest feasible level that we can,” Gingles said.
Asked about the EPA’s power to demand state agencies enforce its rules, Regan said he would take action if the stricter emission guidelines aren’t followed once they are in effect.
“I have no reason to believe that Texas or Louisiana, Ohio, West Virginia, all of these states will not follow the law,” he said. “In the event that any state decides that they don’t want to follow the law as defined by EPA, we will step in, and we will ensure that the people in all of these communities across the country are protected,” Regan said.
The proposed regulations would require facilities that emit harmful compounds to install fenceline monitors, or sensors that detect the level of pollutants in the air at their property boundaries. Industry-placed monitors are not commonplace and are typically situated in the communities that request them rather than at a facility’s fenceline.
The EPA plans to make data from the fenceline monitors available to the public online so adjacent communities would be aware of any risks they face.
Neighbors have also pushed for pollution risk assessments to take into account the cumulative effect of multiple toxins in the air, rather than individual components.
“We’re tackling that cumulative exposure” in the proposed rules, Regan said. “So based on any elevated levels of any of those 80 (air toxins) … we will have enforcement actions that we can take.”
In addition to the EPA, the U.S. Department of Justice has targeted Denka for dangerous emissions at its Louisiana plant. The company and DuPont Specialty Products are defendants in a federal lawsuit filed last month for failure to reduce chloroprene levels based on EPA assessments conducted in 2010. DuPont owned the St. John site before selling it to Denka.
“(Denka) has consistently operated a business manufacturing chloroprene rubber in compliance with the emission standards in Louisiana state since it took over the business from DuPont on November 1, 2015,” the company said in a March 6 statement in response to the lawsuit.
The company, which is based in Tokyo, could not be reached immediately for comment on Regan’s new regulatory proposals.
The EPA will accept written comments for 60 days after the proposal is published in the Federal Register and will hold a virtual public hearing. Regan said he anticipates the updated regulations to be in place by next spring.
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