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Kanawha County is facing environmental justice concerns. Ethylene oxide cancer risk reassessment | Energy and Environment
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Kanawha County is facing environmental justice concerns. Ethylene oxide cancer risk reassessment | Energy and Environment

Do you believe that the DEP does not understand what environmental justice means?

Linda Frame, president of West Virginia Environmental Council asked the question.

It was done after the Zoom call representative from the Department of Environmental Protection said that the department needed more federal guidance regarding environmental justice concerns.

Last month’s council-hosted online townhall was attended by all participants. They were able to bring their concerns to the attention of the agency and they all understood what environmental justice is.

The historically Black community has been called an environmental sacrifice area by Pam Nixon, former DEP environmental advocate and chair of the NAACP Charleston branch Environmental and Climate Justice Committee.

Areas have been exposed to adverse impacts by chemical facilities such Union Carbide Corp. and Bayer CropScience as well as sites such as the Dunbar treatment facility and West Virginia Paving asphalt-producing business.

During World War II, a plant was constructed in Institute to produce butadiene (and styrene) for the federal government. These chemicals are used to make synthetic rubber. Union Carbide purchased the plant in 1947 to make other chemicals.

According to an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 1984 overview of Kanawha Valley environmental pollutants, the plant was a major source and generator of hazardous wastes by the 1970s.

According to the agency, monitoring wells at the site had detected significant groundwater pollution that exceeded drinking water standards. Union Carbide told the EPA it had buried a variety of chemical wastes at this site between 1950 and 1970.

Eight months after a leakage from Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in Bhopal had killed thousands and left thousands with permanent disabilities, or even death, an accidental release by aldicarboxime from the Institute plant sent at most 135 people to the hospital.

In August 2008, a blast at Bayer CropScience’s plant left two people dead and eight others treated for possible chemical exposure.

The EPA also released their latest National Air Toxics assessment in 2018. It found that Kanawha County contained six of the 90 census tracts that were most at risk from the flammable, non-colorless gas ethylene oxide.

Bayer CropScience explosion 2008

As explosions hurled the valley in 2008, flames shot 50-100 feet into the air at Bayer Plant in Institute.

It was the first such assessment after EPA reclassified ethylene dioxide as a cancer-causing agent in 2016.

Kanawha’s total cancer risk was 366 per 1,000,000, which is 10th highest in the country. This was largely due to the risk from ethylene dioxide, which is responsible for much of the country’s tract-related cancer risk.

According to EPA data, the Institute facility, which is located along W.Va. 25 near West Virginia State University released 9,164 pounds ethylene oxide between 2015 and 2019. This was more than any of the 25 high priority facilities where the agency estimated that emissions significantly contribute to elevated cancer risk.

Union Carbide transferred the permitting in Institute to Specialty Products US, LLC in 2018. This is a subsidiary of International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc., which means that Specialty Products now runs an ethylene oxide process that was previously run by Union Carbide.

According to the 1984 Kanawha Valley environmental pollution overview by the EPA, ethylene oxide was a source of raw material at the Institute since at least 1970.

What specific steps has the DEP taken to ensure that the EJ is the focus of the state? [environmental justice]What are the implications of this ethylene oxide issue that centers partially around a chemical facility in Institute, a majority Black community and home to a historically Black university? Frame asked DEP Environmental Advocate Ed Maguire a question, while a participant in the town hall read another question.

Maguire responded by shifting the focus to the EPA.

Maguire stated that the EPA wanted the DEP provide training in environmental justice for all employees. This prompted the agency to request a training program from Maguire.

Maguire stated that they didn’t respond. It’s almost as if they don’t want to insert EPAs view. They want us to create it ourselves.

wvsu1 (copy)

The West Virginia State University campus is located in Institute.

Adam Ortiz, EPA Region 3 Regional Administrator, deferred comment regarding staff environmental justice training to state agency but said that the EPA is available to provide training.

Ortiz stated that we have many people who are willing and able to train anybody to help achieve our environmental goals.

Frame asked Maguire if the DEP had an environment justice policy to ensure that communities are not disproportionately polluted. Maguire replied that they did not.

Maguire explained that while the department has an acting environmental coordinator who monitors EPA guidelines, there is no new policy or statutory authority for denying permits based on environmental justice issues.

Maguire stated that a state environment justice policy would be a great opportunity for us to have that opportunity, and we look forward to it.

Nixon, a former Institute resident, responded by noting that the DEP had PublishedAn environmental equity policy was drafted at her request in 2003. It pledges to ensure that no section of the population is subject to the environmental risks and consequences or is denied equal access to environmental benefits.

Nixon stated that it needs to be updated as it lacks teeth.

For environmental equity

Pam Nixon stands on the deck at her South Charleston home. Nixon is a longtime supporter of chemical safety, clean air, and wants a Kanawha County-focused risk assessment on cancer that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will be conducting. This will result in increased air emissions regulations and not just new numbers. Nixon also demands that the DEP develop an updated, stronger environmental equity policy.

Terry Fletcher, the DEP acting spokesperson, stated that this policy is no longer in force as its terms are already part of agency permitting and enforcement. Fletcher stated that the 2003 policy didn’t affect regulatory requirements. He also noted that the DEP has never been authorized to permit or enforce regulations that are based on a community’s economic or racial makeup.

The EPA defines environment justice as the fair treatment of all people and meaningful involvement, regardless of their race, color, or income, in respect to the development and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.

The Biden administration is committed to environmental justice. It has set a goal of delivering at most 40% of the overall benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energies to disadvantaged communities.

However, Maguire’s comments describing the DEP as unable to enforce environmental justice by statute and the EPA lacking guidance suggest that there is a long road ahead in resolving the environmental justice concerns raised by Institute over ethylene oxide.

Federal and state regulators are still trying to educate the public about the dangers of the chemical in their communities.

[W]Nyoka Bakerchapman from the League of Women Voters of West Virginia Natural Resources Committee said to Maguire that she knows there are violations at all levels. To enforce environmental justice for communities at all levels, you need to have teeth in order to do the job.

A sampling plan

The 2018 National Air Toxics Assessment, based on 2014 data, indicated Kanawha County’s high cancer risk from ethylene oxide emissions. It is not the final word.

The DEP subsequently contacted EPA for assistance in obtaining localized data because it suspected that the assessment was too optimistic about the cancer risk at Union Carbide’s facilities.

Fletcher stated that the DEP received the most current and accurate emissions data from the sites in 2019. This allowed regulators to perform their own dispersion modeling, and gain a better understanding of potential risks and minimized strategies.

Gazette-Mail obtained a May EPA document through Freedom of Information Act request. It stated that state air dispersion modeling showed that the risk for populated regions remains high.

Gazette-Mail obtained additional records from the state Department of Health and Human Resources and EPA. This analysis of cancer data revealed an area of elevated ethylene dioxide-related cancers, but cautioned that the data were inconclusive.

The issue is clouded partly because environmental regulators decided not to hold public meetings. A March 2020 EPA Office of Inspector General report urged it to inform those who live near facilities that emit significant amounts about the elevated cancer risks.

The report indicated agency plans to conduct outreach in the first six months of 2020. The EPA halted those efforts after regulators decided instead to gather and model additional data.

Nixon stated that Nixon and others received quarterly updates from the EPA regarding the ethylene oxide cancer risk assessment for Kanawha County. However, Nixon said that this didn’t happen.

A DEP WebsiteAugust’s August publication explained how the flammable, non-toxic gas is used to make antifreezes, detergents, plastics, sterilize dental and medical equipment, and to make detergents and plastics. Long-term exposure has been shown to increase the risk of developing white blood cell and breast cancers in women. This includes leukemia, Hodgkins as well as non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The short-term exposure of high levels to ethylene oxide can cause nausea and fatigue, as well as respiratory irritation, vomiting, and respiratory irritation.

According to internal documents obtained at the Gazette-Mail by the Gazette-Mail, an analysis of Cancer Registry data that Steven Blankenship, state epidemiologist shared with health officials revealed elevated ethylene oxide-related Cancers downwind from Union Carbide plants.

The analysis was based in part on a review and analysis of cancer data from 1993, the first year West Virginia Cancer Registry operations, to 2019.

Blankenship presented a map showing an area east of the area of release that has higher rates for ethylene oxide-related cancers. Blankenship also compared the percentages of cases by primary site and ZIP code for the areas of concern with the rest of Kanawha County. He found that nothing stood out in this target area. Blankenship pointed out that this approach has major flaws that could bias the results.

Blankenship stated that any estimate made will be incorrect and that there is no way to know by how much. It is impossible to defend the reliability of any rates at the census tract level.

Blankenship concluded that it was impossible for those cancer clusters east the area of ethylene oxide release to be attributed to Blankenship, citing possible exposures from sources he knew existed in an area he called Chemical Valley.

Blankenship said that it was reasonable to assume that people who live on-site could be the most vulnerable.

Blankenship suggested that he contact the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Blankenship wrote it in a November 2019 Email to Cathy Slemp. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health might be willing and able to examine cancer incidence among daily onsite workers with high levels of exposure.

Slemp said that occupational study would certainly be a more direct method to assess exposure. He replied via email.

Jessica Holstein, spokeswoman for State Health and Human Services, stated that the agency was unaware of any such study.

Union Carbide parent company Dow Chemical spokeswoman Kyle Bandlow declined to comment on whether they would welcome another workplace study. In an email statement, he stated that safety is Union Carbide’s top priority and that the company follows OSHA guidelines and other regulations to protect employees as well as communities.

EPA used 2017 modeling and estimated that the potential cancer risk of breathing ethylene dioxide from another Union Carbide plant along MacCorkle Avenue Southwest (South Charleston) was 807 cases per 1 million. The Institute Union Carbide facility was 379 in 1,000,000, while the Institute Union Carbide is 379 in 1,000,000, and a Covestro South Charleston facility is 185 in 1,000,000.

The EPA approved a field-based sampling plan for the DEPs Division of Air Quality, which was approved in November. It aims to assess atmospheric concentrations near facilities that are known to emit ethylene oxide in Institute and South Charleston.

Summa canister sampling will be used for sampling. Each sample will only be collected for 24 hours. The sampling process will last approximately three months.

There will be four sets of canister samplers placed around each area, as well as a background location.

The results will be reviewed by the Division of Air Quality to determine ethylene oxide presence. Short-term air dispersion modeling will also be performed. The EPA will provide funding for laboratory analyses and advisory support.

Union Carbide and Specialty Products will provide access to sampling sites and operational and emissions data for sampling day. Sampling will only take place when the most emission-intensive processes at the facilities are operating.

The canisters will be located at an approximate breathing height of 5-6ft from the ground.

Maguire stated that final results and their public release are expected in May or June. He acknowledged that this timetable may not please all citizens.

The state environmental regulators plan to hold an open house in person in late March or early April, where members of public can raise ethylene oxide concerns one-on-1 with staff from the Division of Air Quality.

Maguire stated that although virtual DEP public meetings have been helpful in facilitating participation by residents across the state, and will continue to do so, an in-person event would allow agency representatives to better gauge public reactions.

Maguire declined to answer a participant’s request to provide information to all participants at the spring meeting simultaneously, rather than in stations for small groups.

Maguire stated that small groups are beneficial. Maguire stated that having small groups is part of the reason for it being this way. We’ll see.

During a Zoom teleconference meeting that they hosted in September, DEP and EPA fielded questions from Kanawha County residents. The meeting attracted more 175 participants and was the agency’s first local public meeting about ethylene oxide.

“Subjectivity does not help”

Maguire recalled a November meeting of water regulators from states that make up EPA Region 3 (West Virginia and Delaware, District of Columbia and Maryland), at which an EPA official stated that the feds did not want to give anyone a plan on how to address environmental justice. Instead, they were looking to the states for an approach to environmental justice.

Maguire said that Texas will have a different situation than Minnesota and West Virginia. [A]Much of this stuff can be subjective. Subjectivity is not helpful in the regulatory field.

Maguire stated that the EPA has not yet figured out its approach to environmental justice.

Ortiz acknowledged that environmental Justice covers a lot, but said the Biden Administration is performing data-based assessments on human health impacts, demographic information, and environmental stressors to determine community environmental distress levels.

Ortiz spoke with Harold Ward, DEP Secretary, and Bill Crouch from the state Department of Health and Human Resources to discuss immediate environmental justice issues and how to work together more closely in identifying the most affected communities.

These environmental justice issues included ethylene dioxide impacts in Institute and South Charleston. Ortiz stated that he emphasizes drinking water testing and lead line replacements as well as data collaboration.

Ortiz stated that sometimes it is not an enforcement action but technical assistance, education, or funding to make a change.

Ortiz said the EPA plans make public a listing of environmentally distressed communities as well as an analysis of their issues this spring after verifying that agency data matches local regulators.

Ortiz stressed the importance of local, state, and federal officials to address findings EJSCREENEPA’s environmental justice screening tool and mapping tool. It can identify demographics or environmental conditions within a certain radius of an industrial facility.

Maguire believes West Virginia has great potential to benefit from the Biden administration’s focus on environmental justice.

Maguire stated that West Virginia’s high poverty rate would make it a great state to help the White House reach its goal of delivering 40% from relevant federal investments to disadvantaged areas.

Maguire explained that this is how we present this concept to our Legislature, and any other people who have a problem with it.

Living in a silo is not an option

Frame stated that after the town hall, it was time for the DEP’s review and updating of its nearly 20-year-old environmental policy. This will be done with input from citizens and leaders representing the impacted communities.

Frame expressed concern about the water quality and air quality around Kanawha Valley’s chemical plants, which are located near communities of color or low-income neighborhoods.

We need legislation in West Virginia. Chapman said that House bills must be introduced that support climate justice policies, and laws that can be enforced.

The first week and a quarter of the 2022 state legislative session saw the advancement of bills favorable for the energy industry, not environmental justice measures.

State lawmaker panels have proposed bills that would remove restrictions on nuclear energy development, allow for state banking contracts to be restricted with financial institutions that do not divest from fossil fuels companies, and create an insurance company that covers mining mutual funds with $50 million. This is a controversial bailout that critics claim amounts to a bailout of the coal industry that will cost taxpayers millions during the energy transition.

Union Carbides Shadow is seeking environmental justice for those who are seeking justice through the courts.

Kanawha County residents brought two federal class action lawsuits against Union Carbide in 2019. The lawsuits cited the EPAs air toxics assessment which found elevated cancer risk from ethylene oxygen. Residents in Institute and South Charleston were allegedly exposed to ethylene oxide for decades.

The lawsuits still pending claim that the pollution caused residents to seek medical monitoring to reduce their cancer risk.

Plaintiffs in these cases sought to know if Union Carbide had implemented any medical surveillance programs for employees who have been exposed to ethylene oxide at Union Carbides West Virginia since 1970. This includes whether such programs were used for epidemiological investigations or risk assessments. They also sought communications from federal and state regulators concerning ethylene oxide at South Charleston and Institute sites.

Union Carbide has rejected those requests, calling them excessive, unduly burdensome and not proportional to what the case requires.

Union Carbide is committed to safety and integrity. Union Carbide sent an emailed statement stating that it will continue to reduce ethylene dioxide emissions to a level which meets or exceeds EPA regulations as well as our aggressive company sustainability goals. We take the issue of emissions seriously.

According to EPA data, there have not been any Clean Air Act violations at South Charleston or Union Carbides Institute plants since April 2019.

Since 1987, the facilities have produced more than 868,000 lbs of ethylene oxide.

Environmental justice concerns

Institute chemical facilities have raised environmental justice concerns which state and federal environmental regulators struggle to address.

Kathy Ferguson, a resident in the Institute, stated at the EPA/DEP joint public meeting in September about ethylene oxide in Kanawha County, that the uncertainty over the cancer risks from the chemical made her feel like she and her neighbors were being treated like guinea pigs.

Ferguson said Ferguson felt like they were talking about ethylene dioxide in a silo. Ferguson was referring to the 1985 Union Carbides Institute plant leak and other chemical incidents in Kanawha Valley. It is the chemical de jour [T]If you look at ethylene dioxide, you will see that it has a high cancer risk. You should also add that to other exposures. Add that to other chemicals in the air.

Looking for a new norm?

Monongalia County’s Division of Air Quality has approved an air permit for a 1,275-megawatt natural gaz-fired power plant. The permit was granted because of environmental justice concerns.

Longview Powers Mountain State Clean Energy LLC wanted to build the facility north from the Longview coal-fired power plant in Maidsville.

Mon Valley Clean Air Coalition coordinator Duane Nickels, a Morgantown resident, argued in written comments before state environmental regulators as well as at an October public hearing about the permit that it would not be environmentally just for the plant to locate near West Virginia University medical centers, University High School, health centres, and other public sites of significance.

Nichols stated that the planned plant’s greenhouse gas emissions would increase long-term exposure for patients in medical treatment, students in the area, and older residents in care facilities. This would compound an environmental justice problem he claims already exists with Longview Powers 700 megawatt coal-fired plant, and FirstEnergys 1,107 megawatt coal-fired Fort Martin Power Station.

According to a Clean Air Task Force analysis based on federal screening models, the two plants produced a combined 11,720168 tons of carbon dioxide in 2019. This resulted in 82 deaths and 4,173 days lost work days.

The permit permits annual carbon dioxide equivalent emissions to be 2,227,260 tonnes per year for each emission point of a Mitsubishi Hibachi Power Series M501JAC combustion engine and 2,563,571 tonnes per year for a General Electric 7.03 combustion turbine.

We believe that the proposed project, with its many issues that offend public interest, should be rescinded for an environmental justice analysis. Nichols and other opponents of the project submitted public comments to the DEP regarding the permit application.

The Division of Air Quality replied in writing to the EPA’s environmental justice screening tool. It was applied to Mountain State Clean Energys proposed location.

The low-income population of the area was greater than 72% of that of the rest. Its population with less than a highschool education ranked in 62nd percentile and its population over 64 in the 75th percentile.

Despite the fact that the rankings were quite high, the Division of Air Quality concluded that the results weren’t worthy of further review.

Nichols stated in an email that there is no new normal for Monongalia County or the surrounding area.

Others who are disappointed in Institute’s history with disproportionate environmental burdens hope to change the page and make Institute a better place. The people behind the percentiles of Institute and South Charleston residents still need to wait for the DEP or EPA to provide more information and regulatory relief.

Frame stated that it was beyond time for state leadership and community-based public education to inform residents of health hazards they are subject to, and for the DEP not to delay in taking action to reduce them.

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