EPA Failed to Correct Industry Misinformation About Deadly Air Pollution at Public Meetings

At several recent information sessions on the risks posed by the carcinogenic air pollutant ethylene oxide, the Environmental Protection Agency invited local polluters to participate and failed to correct the companies’ false assertions that the chemical poses no danger.

The EPA held eight meetings about ethylene oxide in Texas and Louisiana in August and September, more than a year after a March 2020 report from the EPA inspector general noted that the agency had failed to inform 25 communities about local dangers from the chemical. Before the report, the EPA did tell some people living near facilities that emit ethylene oxide that they had an increased risk of developing cancer, and in the case of one affluent Illinois town, that information led to the shuttering of the offending plant. But the agency neglected to notify many low-income and Black people who had the highest risk of cancer from breathing the chemical.

The inspector general’s report directed the agency to correct the problem, noting the EPA’s responsibility “to speak with one voice and clearly explain to the American people the relevant environmental and health risks that they face.” Yet a virtual meeting held in August in Port Neches, Texas, where a plant owned by Indorama Ventures emits more of the carcinogenic gas than any other industrial facility in the country, was anything but clear.

The event was hosted by the EPA, which acknowledged at the meeting that the emissions from the plant cause an elevated risk of cancer and other health problems. But the agency also invited the polluter — and the company brought in its own hired expert, who dismissed the EPA’s science and presented the harms of ethylene oxide as negligible.

Community advocate Christine Bennett, who is based in Mossville, Louisiana, asks the EPA to force a nearby plant owned by Sasol Chemicals to stop releasing ethylene oxide during an online forum on September 30.

Just Trust Texas

In a Zoom presentation, Frances Verhalen, chief of air monitoring in EPA Region 6 — which contains Texas and Louisiana — explained that ethylene oxide causes several cancers, including including lymphoma and myeloma, and that the 42,680 pounds of ethylene oxide the Indorama plant emitted in 2018 was associated with a risk of 2,000 cancers in 1 million people. A division of the EPA known as IRIS calculated the risk posed by ethylene oxide in an assessment completed in 2016, which found that the chemical was 30 times more carcinogenic than previously thought.

But residents who attended the meeting could be forgiven for not understanding that ethylene oxide does in fact present a health risk. “You may hear different views this evening about the risk,” Verhalen said. “I’m not here tonight to debate the different risk values but rather to explain the risk based on EPA’s latest scientific assessment.”

google-earth-map

A visualization of ethylene oxide emissions from a chemical plant in Port Neches, Texas, based on modeling done by the EPA in 2019. The plant, now owned by Indorama Ventures, was previously operated by Huntsman Corp. and is the largest single-site producer of ethylene oxide in North America. The numbers along the yellow lines indicate the cancer risk above the EPA’s one-in-a-million standard.

Image: Google Earth

After Verhalen stopped speaking, the company responsible for the pollution began its own presentation, which contradicted several critical points the agency official had just made. The plant’s director highlighted his company’s grants to local middle school and high school teachers and the help it provides during hurricanes and floods, as well as the fact that the company allows local youth sports teams to practice on its property. Then a consultant named Sonja Sax — who works for Ramboll, a science-for-hire consulting company — went on to dismiss the agency’s science on ethylene oxide. “EPA estimated risks that are overly conservative,” said Sax, who has also represented the American Petroleum Institute and Denka, a company that emits another carcinogenic air pollutant. “They do not actually predict people’s exposures or risks,” Sax continued.

Sax recommended using an alternate assessment issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. “If we apply the TCEQ value, then the risks go down significantly. They go down to levels that are below one in a million,” said Sax. “And this is a level that EPA considers to be associated with negligible risks.”

What neither Verhalen nor Sax explained was that the TCEQ value, which is about 2,000 times less protective than that of the EPA, was calculated at least in part by the companies that profit from the ability to emit ethylene oxide.

As The Intercept has previously reported, the Texas environmental agency held a meeting in 2018 attended by representatives of companies that emit ethylene oxide and staff of the American Chemistry Council, a trade group that represents chemical companies.

Afterward, Bill Gulledge, a senior director at the ACC who attended the meeting, emailed a TCEQ toxicologist and offered to draft the assessment of the chemical. “Thank you for hosting us this week,” Gulledge wrote. “We are working on several ‘white papers’ on the risk assessment modeling and our alternative approach that should be ready in the next month or so with the goal to have a draft risk assessment manuscript ready shortly thereafter.” The TCEQ’s assessment included many of the elements that the ACC and its scientific consultants recommended at the Texas meeting and excluded studies showing that ethylene oxide causes breast cancer.

Asked about the email, the ACC denied that it was proof that the trade group had offered to draft the assessment. A spokesperson for the ACC said that “Mr. Gulledge is referring to a separate, independent effort … for publication in a peer-reviewed journal” but did not explain why Gulledge would be communicating with the TCEQ about a purportedly separate, independent effort. Reporting from the Chicago Tribune provides additional evidence that the TCEQ’s assessment of ethylene oxide was funded and led by industry groups.

Although the EPA took a decade to develop its ethylene oxide assessment, which underwent two rounds of public comment and review by the science advisory board, the EPA’s Verhalen did not challenge Indorama’s championing of the far less protective standard at the meeting, even when Michael Honeycutt, the TCEQ’s chief toxicologist, who oversaw the state’s assessment process, called in to the meeting to insist that Texas’s number was better than the one the federal agency had calculated. “EPA’s number came out in 2016, and our number came out last year, so we had the benefit of additional analyses and data that EPA did not have, and a lot of that breast cancer data and analysis has come out since 2016,” Honeycutt claimed.

But when asked by The Intercept about Honeycutt’s statement, Kris Thayer, director of the EPA’s IRIS program, disputed the idea that Texas’s assessment included data on breast cancer that was not included in the EPA’s. “There may have been new analyses of existing EtO data published since the IRIS value was set, but there is not new data,” said Thayer. “The peer reviewers of EPA’s IRIS assessment supported inclusion of breast cancer in the IRIS value. Also, the statistical methods used by EPA were supported by the peer reviewers. For these reasons, EPA continues to stand by the IRIS assessment.”

The Science Is Clear

During an online forum about an ethylene oxide-emitting plant in Longview, Texas, owned by the chemical company Eastman, a Ramboll consultant named Shari Beth Libicki also incorrectly described local industrial emissions of ethylene oxide as harmless.

“Even EPA’s conservative assessment indicates that there’s not even a single excess cancer risk per year,” said Libicki, who went on to describe the risks from the plant’s emissions as just part of the dangers one encounters simply from being alive. “There are risks from breathing air everywhere — benzene from gasoline, formaldehyde from cigarettes.”

Libicki claimed that the amount of ethylene oxide emitted by the Eastman plant is less than “background concentrations” of ethylene oxide, which are not clearly tied to emissions from any plant. “EPA has measured background concentrations of ethylene oxide, and those concentrations are also as high — and in some cases much higher — than the estimated concentrations that result from Eastman’s Longview operations.”

“Dr. Libicki, we certainly appreciate you sharing your independent opinion,” an Eastman representative said after the company’s hired scientist spoke.

“Thank you, Dr. Libicki!” echoed Debora Browning of EPA Region 6, who was hosting the meeting.

While no one corrected the misinformation that Libicki presented at the time, Michael Koerber, deputy director of air quality planning and standards in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, disputed Libicki’s misleading statements when contacted later by The Intercept. Koerber pointed out that the EPA doesn’t measure levels by the plants. “We don’t have monitors near the Indorama plant or the other facilities of interest,” he said. Koerber clarified that the agency uses computer modeling to estimate the impact of a plant’s emissions and that the cancer risk from a plant’s emissions would be in addition to the risk posed by the gas released from any other source. “Our risk assessments represent the increased cancer risk due to emissions from a given facility — above any potential existing risk from background levels,” he said.

“It’s very misleading if you’re a community member who is just trying to figure out what your risk is, which is supposed to be the purpose of these information sessions.”

Community advocates have also criticized the EPA for allowing chemical companies to put forward false claims that background levels of ethylene oxide, rather than industrial emissions, are the source of cancer risk. “It’s really offensive,” said Stephanie Herron, a national organizer with the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform. “The way they portrayed it is that there may be widespread background levels of ethylene oxide all across the country that aren’t actually coming from facilities, which is false.”

“It’s very misleading if you’re a community member who is just trying to figure out what your risk is, which is supposed to be the purpose of these information sessions,” said Herron, who attended several of the online events. “I think the proper answer is, ‘The science is clear.’”

In response to questions about some of the community meetings, EPA spokesperson Madeline Beal said that the agency has somewhat adjusted its format. “We received feedback following the first three meetings in the series that attendees wanted more time to voice concerns and interact with EPA staff. To help make that happen, we shifted the order of the remaining meetings in the series to ensure that more time is set aside earlier in the meeting to better address community advocate and participant questions,” Beal wrote in an email to The Intercept.

Mossville, LA - 2/6/2016 - The sun rises over the SASOL industrial complex, which operates day and night. Remaining residents of Mossville complain of the noise and light pollution, in addition to air quality issues.Nearly all the residents of Mossville -- founded by an ex-slave in 1790 and one of the first settlements of free blacks in the South -- have moved away after accepting buyouts from Sasol. Once a homeowner leaves, their property is quickly cleared to make way for the ongoing expansion.

The sun rises over the Sasol Chemicals industrial complex in Mossville, La., on Feb. 6, 2016.

Photo: William Widmer/Redux

Under the Hood

What’s less clear is how much ethylene oxide the plants in question are releasing. At all of the community meetings, EPA officials assured community members that the local companies were reducing their ethylene oxide emissions. Yet the EPA did not verify the often dramatic decreases the polluters have claimed.

In March, The Intercept reported that after the EPA updated its assessment of ethylene oxide in 2016, companies that emit the chemical retroactively erased almost 270,000 pounds of ethylene oxide from their emissions reports. Some of the companies did so at the suggestion of EPA officials. Recent reports suggest that the agency is continuing to allow plants to make such claims without providing hard proof. All eight technical reviews released by the agency in conjunction with the meetings cite significant drops in emissions, some of them dramatic, such as a 92 percent reduction of ethylene oxide emissions from a Taminco plant and a 96 percent reduction of emissions from a BCP Ingredients plant, both of which are in Louisiana. All of the EPA reports describe the drops in the amount of the gas released as “reduced through emission reductions and/or reevaluation of actual emission levels.”

“That tells me that EPA doesn’t know whether the emissions reduction was due to the reevaluation of emission level,” said Abel Russ, senior attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project. “And if EPA doesn’t even know which of those things it is, it means to me that they didn’t look under the hood at all. They just took those numbers at face value.”

Asked about the agency’s process for verifying a company’s reported emissions, Beal, the EPA spokesperson, wrote in an email, “State environmental authorities take the lead to review the emission inventories submitted by companies for accuracy. EPA reviews data submitted to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). During compliance conducted by EPA or state regulators, companies may be asked to provide copies of their measurements or calculations to the State or Federal regulators to determine compliance or to verify emissions.”

Emma Cheuse, a senior attorney at Earthjustice, who is representing about a dozen groups whose members live near industrial facilities releasing ethylene oxide, agreed with Russ that the emissions numbers that both the EPA and industry presented as reassuring facts are suspect. “It’s hard to have any confidence with industry changes to its own estimated emission numbers,” she said.

“It’s hard to have any confidence with industry changes to its own estimated emission numbers.”

Despite the companies’ claims of substantial cuts to their emissions, at least five of the plants still cause the cancer risk in surrounding areas to be above the EPA’s official threshold of concern of 100 cancers in 1 million people. “Even with their new numbers, they’re still over,” said Wilma Subra, an environmental consultant in Louisiana. “The community is still at risk.”

The lack of clarity about how much pollution is in the air near ethylene oxide-emitting plants has led to calls for monitoring. In West Virginia, EPA Region 3 recently required air monitoring for ethylene oxide around three facilities. Yet when a resident asked for similar testing of the air around a Sasol Chemicals plant near her home in Mossville, Louisiana, during a September 30 meeting, the EPA’s Verhalen responded, “It’s not part of our rules.”

Cheuse disagreed. “EPA has the full ability and responsibility to require fenceline monitoring at all of these facilities,” she said.

The ongoing regional differences of communities exposed to the same carcinogen has frustrated activists. “We’ve seen time and time again that there’s really disparate enforcements based on either what state you live in and how friendly your state government is to environmental justice and, frankly, just to communities of color,” said Herron of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform.

While the Trump administration failed to adequately address the ethylene oxide problem, Herron said that she had been hopeful that the new administration would reverse course. Both President Joe Biden and EPA Administrator Michael Regan have emphasized the importance of environmental justice and scientific integrity. “But nothing I’ve seen, particularly in the Region 6 meetings, squares with the commitments that we’re hearing coming out of the Biden administration,” she said.

For some residents, the EPA’s ethylene oxide meetings were just more evidence that the agency is more attentive to environmental pollution in wealthier communities. “The rich community can shut theirs down because they got the mighty dollar,” Christine Bennett, a resident of Mossville, Louisiana, said at the community meeting, referring to the Illinois plant that was shut after emitting ethylene oxide. “But here in a low-income, poor community, we can’t do nothing about it.”

Mossville is home to 15 industrial plants. Bennett, who is African American and has spent her whole life there, has a niece who developed cancer that disfigured her face at age 14, a sister who died of breast cancer, a brother who died of leukemia, and a daughter who died at age 42 after suffering from multiple health problems. To her, the labored presentation about how much ethylene oxide the local plant should be able to emit is ludicrous.

“Stop making it, stop putting it out there,” Bennett shouted in frustration at the community meeting. “After your loved ones have gone through that, they really have the audacity to say they need ethylene oxide? We need people more than we need ethylene oxide.”

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