Tougher Emissions Rules Sought for Plants Spewing Cancer-Causing Pollution

A coal-fired plant in Winfield, W.Va, is seen from an apartment complex across the Kanawha River. (AP Photo/John Raby, File)

(CN) — Eleven environmental justice and rights groups joined forces Tuesday to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over what they call weak rules for chemical facilities that pump out pollutants linked to cancer.

Attorneys with Earthjustice, on behalf of several environmental organizations out of Texas and Louisiana, filed a petition asking the D.C. Circuit to review the EPA’s final rule on emissions at chemical plants.

They say the Miscellaneous Organic Chemical Manufacturing, or MON, rule, which regulates emissions for about 200 chemical plants across the country, allows for dangerous levels of toxic emissions to spill into neighboring communities. 

Specifically, the MON rule leaves people in surrounding areas with a cancer risk rate of 200 in 1 million, twice the level that EPA deems unacceptable under the Clean Air Act, Earthjustice claims.

The hazardous air pollutants that are emitted from MON facilities include toluene, methanol, xylene, hydrogen chloride and methylene chloride, according to the EPA.

The agency says exposure to these substances “may cause adverse health effects such as irritation of the lung, eye, and mucous membranes, effects on the central nervous system, and cancer.”

Most of these chemical plants are concentrated in Texas and Louisiana, and the environmental groups say their emissions disproportionately affect Black, Latino and low-income communities.

The EPA updated its rule after a national air toxins assessment released earlier this year showed pollution from these plants is contributing to cancer hotspots. But the environmentalists say it’s not enough.

“EPA recognizes that communities are facing a blatantly unacceptable cancer threat from breathing toxic air every day, yet it does little to fix this problem,” Earthjustice attorney Emma Cheuse said in a statement Tuesday.

She added, “It’s unjust and wrong that the agency is again refusing to set standards that fully protect children and families living next to petrochemical sources.” 

Earthjustice claims the current MON rule allows for repeated unmonitored release of chemical pollution from the factories, even if pollution levels in the area are too high.

“Our neighborhoods are not sacrifice zones for petrochemical companies. EPA’s national air toxics standards must be the strongest necessary to prevent cancers that EPA itself says the pollution from these chemical plants can cause. Those of us in Louisiana have seen first-hand the type of harm this type of pollution can do to communities,” said Sharon Lavigne, founder of grassroots organization RISE St. James. 

Lavigne’s organization, which is a plaintiff in Tuesday’s case, is currently fighting the industry in Louisiana state court over a proposed 14-plant Formosa Plastics petrochemical complex in St. James Parish. The majority-Black area is already dubbed “Cancer Alley” due to high levels of industrial fumes. 

“A weak MON chemical plant rule is disastrous for the health of St. James Parish, particularly if plans for the Formosa complex are allowed to proceed,” Earthjustice said in a statement announcing the petition, adding that the proposed complex would be located just a mile from an elementary school in a predominantly Black neighborhood. 

Besides Texas and Louisiana, facilities that emit cancer-causing pollutants are also located in West Virginia, Illinois and South Carolina, according to the environmentalists.

Other groups pushing for review of EPA’s rule on Tuesday include Louisiana Environmental Action Network; Louisiana Bucket Brigade; Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services; Air Alliance Houston; Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition; Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League; Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform; Environmental Integrity Project; Union of Concerned Scientists; and the Sierra Club.

“The EPA rule does not go far enough to reduce toxic air pollution and goes too far in allowing loopholes, including an unlimited number of so-called unforeseeable accidents known as force majeure. The problem is not acts of God, it is acts of man,” Louis Zeller, executive director of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said in a statement on the lawsuit. 

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