Fatally Flawed: EDF & partners call on EPA to revoke approval for new chemicals with shocking health risks



A sepia-toned image showing a factory with dark smoke billowing out of multiple smokestacks.

What Happened?

EDF and other environmental groups recently asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to withdraw the approval it issued for a group of new chemicals. This approval, also known as a consent order, allows Chevron to create fuels at its refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi, by using oils produced through a process of superheating plastic waste to break it down (a process known as pyrolysis). The consent order also allows for the use of these fuels derived from waste plastic at more than 100 locations. ProPublica published an article on the issue on August 4, 2023.

Why It Matters

EPA is required by law to provide protections against unreasonable risks posed by new chemicals. But in the consent order EPA approved the production and use of these new chemicals despite significant health risks. One of the chemicals posed a 1 in 4 risk of developing cancer for people exposed to it. Another chemical carried risks of a 7 in 100 cancer risk from eating fish contaminated by it and a greater than 1.3 in 1 cancer risk from inhaling it.

When asked about the shockingly high cancer risks it estimated, EPA claimed its cancer risk assumptions were overly conservative but failed to provide any information about what it believes are the actual risks and pointed to undefined controls under other laws as controlling the risks.

Until now, the acceptable risk standard for cancer in the general population has been 1 in 1,000,000. The risk levels EPA identified are up to 1,000,000 times greater than that.

In addition to these extremely high cancer risks, we are concerned because EPA reviewed these new chemicals derived from the pyrolysis of waste plastics using the expedited process called for by EPA’s Integrated Approach for Biofuel Premanufacture Notices. This process is intended to streamline approvals of biofuel substitutes for petroleum-based fuels because these substitutes have reduced climate impacts.

However, waste plastics pyrolyzed for use as fuels are not biofuels, are not derived from bio-based materials, and have none of the potential environmental benefits of biofuels. Indeed, these plastic-waste derived fuels are petroleum-based.

EPA’s review was further marred by a lack of transparency. There are excessive redactions in the risk assessment and related case files for EPA’s approval, and EPA’s risk assessment and the other case files were only made public more than 10 months after EPA’s approval. In addition, the risk assessment does not indicate the magnitude of the risks from health effects other than cancer — only stating “risks identified.”

Our Take

EPA’s assessment and regulation of these new chemicals are not health-protective and would not provide everyone the same degree of protection from health and environmental risks nor equal access to decision-making. This is not in line with the agency’s environmental justice policy and the Executive Order on Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All—nor is it in line with requirements under the bipartisan Toxic Substances Control Act reforms of 2016.

The community in Pascagoula, Mississippi, is half Brown and Black and one quarter of the population lives in poverty. Further, the new chemical with the 1 in 4 cancer risk is intended to be used as a jet fuel. Studies have shown that communities near airports are more likely to be Black and Brown and low-income communities.

In light of these concerns, we strongly urge EPA to withdraw the consent order because it does not address the unreasonable risks these new chemicals pose, including to higher-risk groups such as fenceline communities, children, and workers.

We also urge EPA to remove the review of any new chemicals derived from plastic wastes from the Integrated Approach for Biofuel Premanufacture Notices and give this category of new chemicals rigorous scrutiny, including re-evaluating any additional plastic-waste-derived substances that were previously reviewed under the streamlined program.

Finally, this consent order issued under EPA’s New Chemicals Program of larger structural problems in the agency’s approach to reviewing the safety of new chemicals. We and other groups just submitted comments to EPA [PDF, 178KB] on its proposed rule to update its new chemical regulations. We urge the agency to fix the New Chemicals Program’s structural problems, for example by allowing not only chemical companies to be a part of the new chemical review process, but also providing access to the process to communities that will be exposed to the chemicals.

We also submitted more detailed recommendations  [PDF, 721KB] to EPA for how they can craft regulations that ensure the agency conducts robust, transparent, and objective reviews of all new chemicals—reviews that will protect human health and the environment, including for those people at greatest potential risk.

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