EPA proposes tighter regulation of chemical plants, looks to cut cancer-causing pollution
The Environmental Protection Agency proposed tighter restrictions on air pollution from chemical plants on Thursday as part of the Biden administration’s pledge to fix long-standing environmental inequities in Louisiana, and across the country.
The new rule would strengthen the Clean Air Act and target the release of toxic chemicals like ethylene oxide and chloroprene – pollutants known to elevate a person’s risk of cancer when breathed in over a lifetime.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan traveled to Reserve, Louisiana to announce the proposed rule, backdropped by the industrial plant, Denka Performance Elastomers – the country’s sole emitter of the likely carcinogen, chloroprene.
The proposed rule would cut emissions by updating the federal standards for equipment used in plants manufacturing organic or synthetic chemicals. It would affect everything from vent systems in plants to the containers used to store chemicals.
If implemented, the rule would also require the affected plants – like Denka – to conduct fenceline air monitoring to track how much pollution moves off-site into nearby neighborhoods.
Regan called the regulations a “game changer,” stating that EPA’s analysis suggests it would cut annual toxic air pollution by more than 6,000 tons. For communities like Reserve, sitting in the shadow of chemical plants, he said the proposal would be enough to reduce the number of people living with an elevated risk of cancer by 96%.
“From day one, President Biden and this administration have committed to fighting for communities just like this one,” Regan said. “And today's action only solidifies that commitment.”
Regan said the rule would also cut emissions of 80 other toxic air pollutants beyond ethylene oxide and chloroprene.
St. John the Baptist Parish residents applauded the measure after spending years advocating for government officials to make more protective policies.
For Robert Taylor, a Reserve resident and leader of the local Concerned Citizens of St. John, the move was another sign that Regan was committed to keeping his promise to improve the air in his community.
“It means so much to me that we now have someone and some agencies that not only heard our cry, they came to our defense,” Taylor said Thursday.
Deep South Center for Environmental Justice Executive Director Beverly Wright, who sits on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, said the measure was a long time coming — and what she believes the EPA should've done all along.
"For decades regulating agencies have completely abdicated their responsibility to the communities they are supposed to protect," Wright said. "Unfortunately, that meant generations of families losing loved ones to cancer and fighting it themselves. There is no doubt that the rule EPA is proposing today will save lives."
Louisiana Chemical Association President Greg Bowser said their group didn't know that Regan was visiting and wasn't aware of the proposal ahead of the announcement. His group works on behalf of its members, the chemical companies operating in Louisiana.
He said his group was still looking into the regulations.
"We hope there is an opportunity to engage in a dialogue between us and the EPA in order to ensure both sides are able discuss the impacts of the proposal and give industry an opportunity to relay to EPA what is already in place in relation to these regulations," Bowser said. "Our members have always been fully committed to reducing emissions and keeping Louisiana prosperous and ensuring it is a safe and healthy place to live."
The proposed rule comes after the EPA directed the Department of Justice to sue the Denka plant earlier this year in federal court, asking a judge to force the company to immediately cut its chloroprene emissions.
The agency has stated that the concentration of chloroprene around the plant regularly averaged four to 14 times higher than what the EPA advises since monitoring began in 2018, substantially endangering the health of thousands of residents living nearby.
The public comment period on the proposed rule will remain open for 60 days once it's published in the Federal Register, and the federal agency plans to hold a virtual public hearing. The EPA will also hold a training for communities to submit comment on April 13.
The EPA would then review the public comment and publish a final rule. Regan said they hope to finalize the rule by spring 2024.
NOTE: Story was updated to include comment from the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and the Louisiana Chemical Association.