Urge EPA to Strengthen Standards for Chemical Plants
Communities on the fenceline of chemical manufacturing facilities across the country are often exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution, putting them at risk of cancer and other illnesses. Many of these chemical manufacturers, which often make chemicals and products like plastic out of oil and gas, have poor compliance records, leaving it up to residents and clean air advocates to hold large corporations like DOW, Monsanto, and Dupont accountable.
After decades of organizing, in April 2023, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed updates to several of the rules that regulate these facilities, which could protect the health of communities and workers. The changes would apply to the New Source Performance Standards that apply to the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturing Industry (SOCMI) and to the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants that apply to the SOCMI and Polymers and Resins Industries (SOCPRMs). These regulations would create new air monitoring requirements and controls for roughly 227 chemical manufacturing sites, including sites that are responsible for major harm in environmental justice communities.
The updates are a step forward, but they need to be strengthened. FracTracker Alliance submitted comments on these rules, supporting many of the EPA’s proposed updates and arguing for stronger fenceline monitoring requirements on all facilities, increased flare efficiency and monitoring, stronger leak detection and repair protocols, stronger startup and shutdown emissions regulations, and the application of community-focused risk assessments.
The maps and analyses presented in our comments show that SOCPRMs operate in communities that are disparately impacted by multiple other polluting industries. The SOCPRMS are located in regions with high concentrations of facilities permitted to emit carcinogens and respiratory irritants. The SOCPRMs are located in areas with above average exposures to toxic releases, with the majority above the 75th percentile for volumes of air toxics emitted in the region and the resulting cancer and respiratory hazard index risk. Of the 9 regions discussed, there were an average of 46 facilities with permits to emit carcinogenic emissions within ten miles of the SOCPRMs.
While many of the updates are worth supporting, the proposed rules need to include stronger and comprehensive fenceline monitoring requirements for all facilities, increase flare efficiency and monitoring standards, stronger leak detection and repair protocols. Stronger emissions regulations and effective fenceline monitoring for SOCPRMs could improve the air quality in regions of the United States with the highest percentiles of air toxics emissions volumes and protect the health of marginalized communities with the highest percentiles of cancer risk and respiratory hazard indices resulting from air toxics emissions.
Theresa Landrum and Doug Wood, two environmental justice advocates, stand in front of Marathon Oil’s Refinery in Detroit, Michigan. This facility will not be impacted by the EPA’s updated regulations, but it could supply oil to chemical manufacturers that are. Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, 2020.
Chemical Manufacturing Sites
This interactive map looks at chemical manufacturing sites impacted by a suite of rules proposed by EPA that would update emission standards and eliminate loopholes for 218 of the nation’s riskiest chemical manufacturing facilities.
View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article.
In order to turn layers on and off in the map, use the Layers dropdown menu. This tool is only available in Full Screen view.
Items will activate in this map dependent on the level of zoom in or out.
Why these rules matter
Chemical facilities are major sources of air pollution. They emit a class of compounds called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which vaporize into a gas at normal temperature and pressure (making them inhalable) and some of which have adverse health effects. These plants are also sources of Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPS), which are pollutants that are known to cause cancer and other serious health impacts.
The chemical industry has a long history of building in low-income communities, communities of color, or otherwise disenfranchised regions. These racist practices have led to areas like “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana—an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River where the risk of developing cancer from air toxins here is 95% higher than the average American’s. Farther north is “Chemical Valley,” located along the Kanawha River in West Virginia, where chemical companies like Union Carbide, DuPont, and Dow have exploited the region’s vast coal, oil, gas, and salt reserves for decades. Emissions of ethylene oxide (a carcinogen) in this area are at some of the highest levels in the country, putting residents at elevated risks of developing cancer. These proposed rules would require fenceline air monitoring at many of the facilities to identify risks to these communities, however it excludes many facilities, including the six plants along the Kanawha River. The EPA must require monitoring at every facility.
The largest concentration of chemical plants impacted by these rules is on the Gulf Coast, in Louisiana and near Houston, along the Texas coastline. There are over 40 chemical manufacturing plants in just the Houston metropolitan area that will be impacted by these regulations. This concentration of facilities combined with inadequate regulations makes toxic fires and explosions far too frequent, forcing residents to shelter-in-place and face hazardous levels of air pollution, beyond their everyday exposure, and putting workers in grave danger. In just the last few months, there was a fire at Ineos Phenol plant that injured a worker, a fire at Shell Chemical in Deer Park that sent a dark plume miles from the plant, and a fire at Marathon’s crude oil refinery killed a worker, all in the Houston area. These new proposed regulations would set stronger leak detection and repair requirements for new facilities, however they must also require leak detection and repair requirements for all existing facilities.
FracTracker comments to EPA
Our comments submitted to the U.S. EPA use Toxic Release Inventory data and EJScreen tools to evaluate the communities where the majority of the targeted synthetic organic plants are located. As described above, the majority of these facilities are located in heavily industrialized regions where communities living in these regions are exposed to elevated concentrations of carcinogenic and toxic hazardous air pollutants (air toxics) emitted from these facilities.
Using GIS mapping techniques paired with EJ Screen, the following site assessments report the counts of SOCPRMs in each region, and summarize the existing impacts of air toxic releases on the region. Bar charts of air toxics emissions and risk show that these regions are all in the upper percentiles for volumes of air toxics releases and both respiratory and cancer risk. Additionally, the majority of these disparately impacted regions are also predominantly marginalized communities of color and low income communities with higher levels of unemployment.
Additional recommendations that would improve the proposed rules include:
- The EPA must strengthen the over-30-year-old leak detection and repair requirements used to minimize fugitive emissions. As it stands, EPA declined to update most facilities’ leak detection and repair requirements. Fenceline communities are affected adversely by fugitive emissions of a cocktail of pollutants from these chemical manufacturing facilities, and the facilities must be required to use pollution prevention technologies such as leakless pumps and valves with verification using advanced leak detection sensor networks. While EPA does propose updated leak standards for sources that use ethylene oxide or chloroprene and for new/modified facilities under the New Source Performance Standards (NSPS), EPA’s failure to revise the leak standards at all for the vast majority of facilities is a major failure and missed opportunity in this rule. As EPA admits, the majority of emission sources from SOCPRMs are fugitive. Therefore the outdated leak standards that EPA last revised well over a decade ago should be revised. In addition, EPA’s analysis of the developments in leak detection technologies and practices is faulty, as the agency failed to consider leakless (or low-leak) valves, optical gas imaging, or leak detection sensor networks. EPA also used a flawed cost- effectiveness analysis by using current-day cost figures for new requirements while relying on 2007 cost figures for the savings in preventing losses of valuable chemicals. In short, EPA should consider the proper range of leak detection technologies and should apply revised standards for all facilities.
- While we support the proposed regulatory requirement for fenceline monitoring, multiple fenceline monitors should be required at all of the SOCPRM facilities. The current proposal only requires facilities emitting a minimum of six priority pollutants to institute fenceline monitoring. Additionally, the specified detection limits for some of the pollutants are too high. For instance, despite low detection levels being achieved by advanced monitoring methods, the EPA is using a 300 ppt detection limit and then tripling that to create the fenceline action limit (900 ppt) for Ethylene Oxide (ETO). ETO is toxic at 11 ppt in the ambient air. EPA’s action level at the fenceline is 100 times the health protective level. EPA should mandate the use of advanced monitoring technologies to achieve lower detection limits and lower the action levels at the fenceline.
- While we support the new risk analysis, the results of the risk analysis should be paired with recommended solutions and regulatory options to decrease risk. Enhanced leak detection and repair requirements and increased flaring efficiency requirements are the highest priorities because leaks and flaring are substantial contributors to excess risk for neighboring communities. EPA can better support its regulatory requirements by linking the findings in the risk analysis more directly to the regulatory requirements in the rule.
- Flares can be a major source of air toxics emissions when they are not operating efficiently to entirely combust harmful waste gases. Combustion efficiency in open flame stack flares is impossible to monitor, and open flame stack flares are also a physical nuisance due to sound and light pollution. EPA’s proposed enhanced monitoring requirements for flares are a vast improvement over current standards, but are inadequate to identify inefficiently operating, smoking flares. Also, EPA wrongly proposes to give smoking flares multiple exemptions when operating above “smokeless capacity.” EPA should require the phaseout of all open-flame stack flares, and require monitoring systems for enclosed flares to maintain smokeless burns.
- While there has been much discussion and opposition by industry over the proposed elimination of the much-abused startup, shutdown, and malfunction exemptions, the EPA must retain this proposed rule in the final rulemaking. These exemptions have allowed chemical manufacturing facilities across sectors to emit unregulated volumes of air toxics, without the risk of a violation. The proposed rule will require SOCPRMs to better ensure that their facilities consistently operate within regulatory constraints. Additionally, the agency’s proposal should be improved by removing loopholes for uncontrolled emissions from pressure release devices during malfunctions. While pressure release devices may be necessary for worker safety, they should not be exempt from emissions regulations. If facilities are operating safely and responsibly, the use of pressure release valves should not be necessary. Uncontrolled emissions from pressure release devices should be treated as any other violation in order to disincentivize facilities from operating at dangerous capacities.These exemptions allow for the unregulated release of harmful air toxics and must be removed as well.
The proposed updates to the U.S. EPA’s rules regulating the SOCPRMs are a step in the right direction but need to be strengthened. While many of the updates are worth supporting, the proposed rules need to include stronger and comprehensive fenceline monitoring requirements for all facilities, increase flare efficiency and monitoring standards, stronger leak detection and repair protocols. Stronger emissions regulations and effective fenceline monitoring for SOCPRMs could improve the air quality in regions of the United States with the highest percentiles of air toxics emissions volumes and protect the health of marginalized communities with the highest percentiles of cancer risk and respiratory hazard indices resulting from air toxics emissions.
You can take action by leaving a comment directly with the EPA here (before July 7), or through the People Over Petro’s petition, which calls on the EPA to strengthen the rules in four areas: requiring fenceline air monitoring at all sites, strengthening leak detection requirements on all sites, limiting flaring from facilities, and removing loopholes that allow air pollution during certain malfunctions.
Topics in This Article:
Join the Conversation
Support Our Work
FracTracker Alliance helps communicate the risks of oil and gas and petrochemical development to advance just energy alternatives that protect public health, natural resources, and the climate.
By contributing to FracTracker, you are helping to make tangible changes, such as decreasing the number of oil and gas wells in the US, protecting the public from toxic and radioactive chemicals, and stopping petrochemical expansion into vulnerable communities.
Your donations help fund the sourcing and analysis of new data so that we can keep you informed and continually update our resources.
Please donate to FracTracker today as a way to advocate for clean water, clean air, and healthy communities.