The Environmental Protection Agency’s regional air quality chief struggled to clear the air as she faced a crowd full of locals who feared the air.
South Charleston resident Kayde Cappellari had just asked how locals could trust Union Carbide to report accurate information on emissions of a cancer-causing chemical of which EPA data show two sites in Institute and South Charleston emitted over 434 tons into the air from 1987 through 2021.
“Trust requires that it comes from both sides,” Alice Chow, EPA regional air quality and analysis branch chief, said during a West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection-held meeting earlier this month at West Virginia State University. “I think the agency has to prove to you that they are working hard for the community.”
The agency under scrutiny was the DEP, which held the meeting in part to tout an agreement it reached with Union Carbide the DEP said will keep area residents safer in response to complaints about permitted emission levels at the company’s neighboring Institute site.
Under the agreement, Union Carbide must implement a site-specific ethylene oxide emissions screening program within 90 days for rail cars at its Institute facility, where the highest concentrations of the chemical were detected last year.
“[Y]ou guys in this area are probably going to be the first communities to be able to do something like this,” Chow told the crowd of roughly two dozen.
“That’s going forward,” lifelong North Charleston resident Terry Cecil, 62, replied. “We’re looking backward.”
Cecil and other longtime Kanawha Valley residents say environmental health damage from generations of emissions of ethylene oxide, not classified by the EPA as a human carcinogen until 2016, has been done.
Cecil estimated 30 to 40 neighbors have died in the past four decades in his North Charleston neighborhood directly across the Kanawha River from Blaine Island, a roughly 1.25-mile-long island that’s been a longtime Union Carbide manufacturing site.
Robbie Hendricks, 63, of North Charleston, said most of those deaths have claimed friends and family.
“We’re scared to death,” Hendricks said. “We’ve been born and raised down there, breathing this stuff all our life.”
“I know you can’t go back in the past, but how many people died?” former Union Carbide employee Pat Jones of North Charleston said.
Union Carbide is seeking renewal of a controversial air quality permit for its ethylene oxide distribution system at the Institute site.
“When we get down to it, what this is actually about is extending a permit to release more ethylene oxide,” Tom Rhule, 71, of Charleston said of the DEP’s agreement with Union Carbide. “This is not about cutting it off.”
Residents among the crowd of two dozen that gathered for the DEP’s meeting inside the James C. Wilson University Union building earlier this month questioned the validity of air monitoring results that informed the agreement and the DEP’s stated need to have to seek Union Carbide approval in a negotiation of permit levels.
Doubting the reliability of monitoring results, Rhule suggested the DEP’s acronym stood for “Department of Everything Permitted.”
“Call me suspicious, but man, I’m tired of seeing family and friends pass away and leave the state because of this crap,” Rhule said.
The highest concentrations of ethylene oxide the DEP found in four 24-hour monitoring periods from January through April 2022 came 775 feet from where ethylene oxide rail cars are unloaded at Union Carbide’s Institute site, just west of Malcolm Lane.
One reading at the site was 2.35 micrograms per cubic meter. That result is nearly eight times the 2018-19 national average of ambient concentrations at EPA program stations taken from October 2018 through March 2019. About two-thirds of samples were below the national average.
Local concerns about ethylene oxide stem from the EPA’s 2018 National Air Toxics Assessment. The assessment found that six of the 90 census tracts with the highest cancer risk from ethylene oxide were in Kanawha County.
The total cancer risk in Kanawha was 366 in 1 million, 10th-highest in the country.
It was the first such assessment since the EPA classified ethylene oxide as a carcinogen in 2016, causing risk estimates to go up.
Ethylene oxide is a flammable, colorless gas used to make antifreeze, detergents and plastics, and to sterilize medical and dental equipment. Long-term exposure has been associated with reproductive problems and increases in female breast and white blood cell cancers, including leukemia and Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Laura Crowder, director of the DEP’s Division of Air Quality, told residents the agency doesn’t think the monitoring method it used was “precise or accurate enough.”
“We think there are problems with the methodology,” Crowder said.
Resident and environmental health expert concerns over the DEP’s released monitoring results and agency-cited enforcement authority limits fuel fears of living with elevated cancer risk for many more years to come and belief among some residents that risk has long been a reality.
Limited by the law
The DEP is limited by state code in how stringently it can set and enforce air pollution control standards.
Chapter 22, Article 5, Section 4 of West Virginia code allows the state to adopt legislative rules or programs for air pollution control more stringent than those at the federal level if the DEP finds scientifically supportable evidence for such a rule or program “reflecting factors unique to West Virginia or some area thereof.”
Cappellari asked DEP officials why the DEP doesn’t use that section of code to more stringently restrict ethylene oxide emissions.
“You can mandate lower levels, period,” Cappellari said.
DEP officials disagreed.
DEP spokesperson Terry Fletcher noted agency findings of higher ethylene oxide concentrations in areas of no known sources than onsite at facilities with known ethylene oxide emissions, a finding he observed isn’t unique to West Virginia.
The agency must still develop and propose a rule even if it does make such a finding, Fletcher noted, adding the development could take a year or more and still be subject to the state legislative process.
“[T]he agency acted much more quickly than what can be done through the state or federal regulatory process by pursuing the collaborative agreement with the Union Carbide Institute facility,” Fletcher said in an email after the March 2 meeting.
The federal Clean Air Act does allow states to have stronger air pollution laws than the EPA, prohibiting them from having weaker pollution limits than the EPA’s.
Many other states haven’t been held back by laws and regulations limiting how stringent they can make their air pollution control programs.
West Virginia was one of 18 states precluded from enacting more stringent air pollution control standards than the federal program by state or local laws or regulations, according to a 2014 survey by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. Out of 43 responding states, 20 reported they weren’t precluded from surpassing the federal program in stringency.
Stories you might like
- WV House passes bill that would designate sites deemed suitable for natural gas electric generation projects
- Bill that would have allowed indoor smoking facilities at certain resort areas fails in WV Senate
- WV House approves coalfield development office reboot bill that would 'educate the public' on asserted coal industry benefits
- WV Senate to consider PFAS protection bill
“While the law allows state and local air agencies to be more stringent than the federal program, in practice it is not an option on which these agencies can rely,” the National Association of Clean Air Agencies concluded.
“I’m absolutely appalled that you can’t set permit limits necessary to protect human health,” West Virginia Climate Alliance cofounder Perry Bryant told the DEP.
The Institute facility’s emissions of ethylene oxide totaled 0.2 tons in 2021, but potential annual ethylene oxide emissions were 3 tons.
Released last month, the DEP’s report on the agency’s ethylene oxide monitoring results noted Union Carbide must “[s]ignificantly reduce” its potential emission limits for ethylene oxide under the agreement between the agency and the company.
Fletcher said officials won’t seek public input on what that emission cutoff is before it’s determined, adding that feedback the agency received already was a “huge factor” in shaping the agreement.
Per the agreement, Union Carbide must monitor each rail car for ethylene oxide emissions within 12 hours of arriving at the Institute facility. Each rail car must be monitored by onsite inspection using a testing device that can detect ethylene oxide concentrations down to at least 20 parts per million.
Upon a reading showing potential rail car emissions, “appropriate action” must be taken per developed response plans, the agreement states.
If Union Carbide fails to complete requirements under the agreement, it will be subject to civil penalties of up to $10,000 per day of the violation, per the agency. The agreement notes that penalties collected under the agreement “may be dedicated to the community within the Institute area” at the Division of Air Quality director’s discretion.
A historically Black community, Institute long has been what concerned citizens have called an environmentally unjust “sacrifice zone.” Chemical facilities like those operated by Union Carbide, Bayer CropScience and Specialty Products, as well as sites such as the nearby Dunbar treatment plant, have combined to expose Institute to elevated health and safety risks for generations.
“I think you’re going to be in a very difficult situation to say, yeah, we sat down, we worked together, we came up with this agreement and now we’re going to have to be the cop on the beat. We’re going to have to be the enforcer,” Bryant told DEP officials. “I’d like to think that you guys would be able to do that, but I think it’ll be very difficult.”
Monitoring monitoredSamples were taken from seven sites in Institute, North Charleston and South Charleston, and background sites in Guthrie and Buffalo, during 24-hour periods from January to April last year for the DEP’s air monitoring project.
The DEP’s final report on the sampling cautions the monitoring isn’t meant to be used to establish long-term risk. The study’s purpose was to determine the presence of ethylene oxide in the atmosphere, the report notes.
Philip Price, a retired research scientist who worked 33 years for Union Carbide and Dow, called the methodology used by the DEP “surprisingly flawed” and said it fails to provide data that would be useful for public health decisions.
The report acknowledges the minimum measurable concentration that can be reported with 99% confidence in the EPA-approved method used in the DEP monitoring project isn’t low enough to measure ethylene oxide at a level that equates to a 100-in-1 million cancer risk. That’s the upper limit of acceptable lifetime cancer risk for the most exposed person set by the EPA.
The DEP report also noted potential interference in monitoring from compounds that include acetaldehyde and methanol commonly released in the environment. Acetaldehyde is released by car exhaust and bush fires and can be emitted during chemical manufacturing. Methanol is released by vegetation and microbes.
The DEP concluded ethylene oxide concentrations measured at background sites far away from any known sources of ethylene oxide suggest there are other sources of the chemical.
Price disagrees, contending the results likely indicate interference from other compounds common in the natural environment.
Hans Plugge, principal at Columbia, Maryland-based environmental consulting firm Safer Chemical Analysis LLC, said unless the EPA or others release a more accurate and stable analytical methodology for ethylene oxide, results will most likely remain inconclusive.
A lifetime cancer risk of 1-in-1 million means that, for every 1 million people who are continuously exposed to a certain level of a pollutant over 70 years, one person may develop cancer, according to the EPA’s definition.
The DEP’s report called the EPA’s risk assessment approach “extremely conservative” since people travel.
Plugge said in an email that EPA methodology for cancer risk evaluation “vastly overestimates” actual risk.
But Marilyn Howarth, an occupational and environmental medicine physician at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology, said if people were exposed to levels reported in the DEP sampling results for a 70-year lifetime, the cancer risk would be extremely high.
“As a health professional, I think we should take a more protective approach of people’s health and require much more monitoring to see what the exposure actually is and more quickly put controls in place that would limit exposure,” Howarth said in an email.
“They say you’ve got to breathe this stuff 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 70 years. Well, hell, we’ve all lived there that long,” Hendricks said after the meeting.
Susan Buchanan, a clinical associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Illinois-Chicago School of Public Health, said the biggest problem with ethylene oxide emissions are that levels are usually within permitting parameters not protective of health.
Per its agreement with the DEP, Union Carbide is working with the DEP and the EPA to help develop air quality-related data collection, including fenceline monitoring protocols, according to Fletcher. The project will involve air sampling at Union Carbide’s ethylene oxide-emitting locations in Institute “and/or” South Charleston, Fletcher said.
Representatives of Union Carbide and its parent company Dow have been absent from DEP meetings to update the community on its ethylene oxide oversight, an absence criticized by some residents.
“I would think if you’re in the spotlight, you’d want a representative [here],” Cecil said.
A Union Carbide spokesperson didn’t say why the company has been absent from meetings, but noted in a statement it had agreed to site-specific ethylene oxide emissions screening for rail cars above current regulations.
Union Carbide’s facilities in Institute and South Charleston have complied with Clean Air Act regulations for at least the past three years, according to EPA records.
Fletcher said Thursday the DEP was still working on responses to comments it received for Union Carbide’s air quality permit proposal. Once that process is complete, the proposed permit will be sent to the EPA, which will have 45 days to review the permit and submit comments.
Known sources of ethylene oxide in the study area are Union Carbide and Covestro operations at 437 MacCorkle Ave. Southwest in South Charleston, and Union Carbide and Specialty Products US LLC operations at Altivia’s industrial park in Institute.
‘It’s too late’
The DEP has touted EPA-approved air quality modeling as an estimator of long-term cancer risk rather than air monitoring.
At a January public meeting at West Virginia State University, DEP air toxics coordinator Mike Egnor showed attendees a map indicating a 600-in-1 million cancer risk around the Institute plant site and 200- to 400-in-1 million for most of the university campus, per 2020 emissions, well above the EPA’s 100-in-1 million acceptable lifetime cancer risk.
Recalling a lifetime of living in Union Carbide’s shadow after the DEP’s meeting, Hendricks grew more exasperated.
“They don’t know nothing,” Hendricks said of the DEP. “It’s too late now. It’s too late.”