Deep Dives: Environmental Health Policy

Petrochemical pollution doesn’t affect communities equally. Better regulations can help.

By Michelle Allen, Manager, Community Engagement

Recent high-profile chemical disasters in East Palestine, Ohio, and Deer Park, Texas, have highlighted the risks facing communities where the petrochemical industry operates, but not every spill or toxic pollution release makes headlines. By some counts, there is a chemical fire, explosion or release every other day in this country.

As countries around the world invest in strategies to reduce carbon pollution and rely less on fossil fuels, the oil and gas industry has turned to petrochemicals as an opportunity for growth. Petrochemicals are chemical derivatives refined from petroleum, and they’re found in products we use every day: from water bottles and plastic cases on our phones to paints, fertilizers and carpets.

But images of billowing black clouds of smoke hanging over homes, schools and parks in communities from Appalachia to the Gulf Coast are a reminder that our everyday products—many of which are for the sole purpose of convenience—are not without cost. And too often, these costs are borne by someone else.

Communities are exposed to health risks from petrochemical pollution

Exposure to petrochemical pollution—from acute events like these environmental disasters, but also from prolonged exposure to these air toxics, day in and day out—puts communities at risk. But communities don’t experience these risks equally. Black and brown communities and low-income areas bear the brunt of this unequal and unjust pollution. Children, pregnant people, seniors and people with existing medical conditions are especially at risk of developing a host of health issues from exposure to this toxic pollution, including cancer, respiratory illness, asthma and more.

Communities on the frontlines of petrochemical pollution have long expressed that they have the right to know what’s in the air they’re breathing so they can take action to protect themselves and demand accountability from decisionmakers and industry. A newly proposed update to regulations in the Clean Air Act is a significant step in the right direction.

New EPA proposal would help hold polluters accountable

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed stronger regulations for some 200 petrochemical facilities throughout the country, more than half of which are concentrated in Texas and Louisiana. These proposed rules include safeguards against petrochemical pollution that advocates have long called for: more air-quality monitoring at the fence line of facilities, stronger protections against flaring, and actions to close loopholes that allow facilities to violate regulations during periods of startup, shutdown and malfunction.

Dedicated community leaders have been leading the fight against this pollution for decades, and it’s great to see the Administration meet these efforts with long overdue protections. We need stronger regulations at the local, state and federal levels to protect the health of residents and require regulators to hold polluters accountable to the communities where they’re operating.

The additional transparency and accountability that will come from these protections are especially critical because many of these facilities have a documented history of breaking the law: our analysis shows that more than half of the facilities expected to be impacted by this proposal are currently violating at least one environmental law, and more than 80 percent have been out of compliance in the last three years.

Strong federal protections are needed to safeguard community health

We urge EPA to adopt a strong final version of this rule that is truly protective of public health. Requiring fence line monitoring to cover a greater number of chemicals and facilities, for example, would help hold polluters accountable and prevent further harm to communities.

EPA’s proposal is a critical step in the right direction—a foundational safeguard that can ground additional layers of protection for communities impacted by petrochemical pollution. Strong federal protections should be part of a comprehensive strategy to help communities achieve a healthy, thriving future for generations to come.

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TSCA And The East Palestine Ohio Train Derailment Are Related–Here’s How

By Maria Doa, PhD, Senior Director, Chemicals Policy, and Lauren Ellis, MPH, Research Analyst

SUMMARY: We explore the connection between the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the risks of toxic chemicals from transportation accidents, and the pathway to better protect communities.

Last month, a Norfolk Southern freight train hauling several railcars carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The crisis not only put several surrounding communities at risk of chemical pollution and negative health outcomes, but also highlighted the ongoing concerns faced by environmental justice communities that live with chemical pollution every day. There are significant gaps in the ways that the risks of chemical exposure are evaluated.

The Ohio train derailment is just the latest example of how accidents involving highly toxic chemicals can have harmful impacts—both short- and long-term—on communities’ health and welfare. By expanding evaluations to include the risks of chemicals at all stages of the chemical lifecycle, EPA can better protect communities.

Train hauling tanker cars full of chemicals

Immediate Impacts

The train derailment has put members of the community in East Palestine at significant risk for a range of health problems and is impacting their livelihoods and welfare. When the train derailed, it released vinyl chloride (known to cause cancer in humans) and other toxic chemicals into the surrounding air, water, and soil. Vinyl chloride is used to make plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is used in a wide range of products, including plumbing pipes and shower curtains.

Following the derailment, more than 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride were burned. Burning vinyl chloride produces hydrogen chloride and phosgene, extremely toxic and corrosive chemicals.

In the aftermath of the derailment, residents have reported experiencing a variety of immediate health problems, including new reports of chemical-induced bronchitis. Because of the potential health risks, people are living in hotels miles away from their homes, families, and friends; in some cases, they have pulled their children out of school.

In addition, local waterways were blocked off, private wells were shut tight, and residents report that they still smell chemical residue in the air. Since the incident, more than 43,000 fish, crustaceans, and amphibians are known to have died.

And these are just the immediate effects. It may be years until we have a better understanding of the long-term impacts of exposure to these toxic chemicals.

Strengthening TSCA Reviews Could Better Protect Communities Like East Palestine

TSCA requires EPA to assess available information on the hazards and exposures of chemicals throughout their lifecycles; this includes a requirement that EPA specifically consider a chemical’s domestic production, import, processing, distribution in commerce, use, and disposal. “Distribution in commerce” includes transporting chemicals.

TSCA also requires EPA to consider the duration, intensity, frequency, and number of exposures when assessing the risk of a chemical. But so far, EPA has yet to fully embrace the tools in the reformed chemical safety law when it comes to assessing the risks toxic chemicals pose during transportation.

EPA does not assess the risks from the distribution in commerce of toxic chemicals in its risk evaluations because it considers current hazardous materials transportation regulations as sufficient to prevent chemical exposures. Thus, EPA did not quantify exposures and risks from spills, leaks, and other releases from transportation incidents but concluded there is “no unreasonable risk” from distribution in commerce of the first 10 chemicals assessed under reformed TSCA.

In our recent comments on the revised risk determinations for the first 10 chemical to undergo risk evaluation under reformed TSCA, we questioned EPA’s conclusion that distribution in commerce does not present an unreasonable risk. We suggested an approach that is more reflective of the risks that communities face.

In response, EPA stated that exposures from the distribution of chemicals in commerce would be minimal “given the fact that these chemicals are transported according to existing hazardous materials transportation rules.”  EPA did not share their reasoning of how transportation incidents involving the first 10 chemicals—including at least 28 incidents involving methylene chloride and six incidents involving TCE in 2022 alone—result in minimal risks to communities, nor how existing transportation regulations mitigate those risks.

We Can Do More to Protect Communities

People can be—and are—exposed to toxic chemicals at all stages of the chemical lifecycle, from spills, leaks, and other transportation incidents to chemical facility releases. The exclusion of these types of releases and exposures underestimates the risks faced by communities located near the site of these preventable accidental releases of toxic chemicals.

This needs to change.

To accurately assess chemical risk under TSCA, EPA should consider data on spills, leaks, and releases from derailments, collisions, and other transportation incidents in its risk evaluations. These releases and exposures simply cannot be ignored.

Also posted in Air pollution health effects, Environmental health, EPA, Policy, Risk evaluation, Safer chemicals, Science, TSCA / Authors: , / Leave a comment