No one knows better than Pam Nixon why the Kanawha Valley is known as Chemical Valley.
“Odors, explosions, the sheltering in place,” said Nixon, 69, of South Charleston, a lifelong Kanawha County resident and 15-year former environmental advocate for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. “That’s what we live under.”
But the chemical commanding attention from federal and state environmental regulators for driving some of the highest total cancer risks in the country has loomed over the valley quietly.
That chemical, ethylene oxide, is a flammable, colorless gas used to help produce antifreeze and detergent and sterilize medical equipment.
In December 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classified ethylene oxide as capable of causing cancer. The agency found the chemical to be 30 times more carcinogenic to adults than previously thought.
The EPA has acknowledged studies of workers linking their exposures to ethylene oxide with increased risk of cancers of white blood cells, which help the body fight infections and other diseases. Studies have shown that breathing air containing elevated ethylene oxide levels over many years increases lymphoid cancer risk for men and women and breast cancer risk for women.
There’s a lot of ethylene oxide in Kanawha County, and many parts of the county have among the highest cancer risks from ethylene oxide in the U.S.
The EPA’s most recently released evaluation of air toxics found that six of the 90 census tracts with the highest cancer risks from ethylene oxide nationwide were in Kanawha County. More than 12,000 people resided in those six tracts, according to the agency.
The highest local cancer risks from ethylene oxide were found in tracts along Route 25 near a Union Carbide ethylene oxide distribution facility in the unincorporated community of Institute. Located within those tracts are McKinley Middle School, West Virginia State University, Shawnee Regional Park, North Charleston Community Center and Alban Elementary School.
The tract with the sixth-highest local cancer risk from ethylene oxide includes a Union Carbide facility along MacCorkle Avenue in South Charleston. The company uses the chemical there in processes for paints and coatings, rinse aids, degreasers and brake fluids as well as chemical mixing, according to the DEP.
The EPA’s most recent National Air Toxics Assessment identifying these risks was released in 2018 and was based on 2014 emissions of air toxics. It was the agency’s first air toxics assessment since it classified ethylene oxide as a carcinogen.
The assessment is a screening tool used to help the EPA and other air regulators determine whether certain pollutants merit further investigation, calculating cancer risk and noncancer health effect estimates for about 140 air toxics the agency regulates under the federal Clean Air Act.
The 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment estimated the nationwide average cancer risk from breathing air toxics at 30 in 1 million. That means that, on average, about 30 people per 1 million would develop cancer if they breathed air with 2014 levels of air toxics over a lifetime of 70 years.
Kanawha County’s highest total cancer risk was 366 in 1 million, 10th-highest in the country and consisting largely of the risk from ethylene oxide that composed much of the risk for most tracts across the country.
“We need some sort of action taken in the valley,” Nixon said. “The EPA needs to go back and review some of their regulations that they have and come up with more stringent regulations for ethylene oxide ... and DEP and EPA need to work with these manufacturers or emitters of the chemical to make sure that the community is safe.”
Data doubted, risk remains
In March 2020, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General released a report urging the agency to inform residents who live near facilities with significant ethylene oxide emissions about their elevated estimated cancer risks.
The EPA had prioritized activities to more fully assess ethylene oxide emissions and the associated health risks to the public near 25 high-priority facilities, according to the report. Union Carbide’s Institute and South Charleston facilities appeared on the list. The report noted agency plans for potential outreach activities for residents living near those facilities in the first half of 2020.
But the EPA delayed outreach because additional data had to be gathered and modeled after the DEP asked for help in coming up with localized data for those two facilities, according to officials.
“About a year and a half ago, West Virginia said, ‘You know, I think that the ethylene oxide risks are kind of high for these two Union Carbide facilities, and do you think you can work with us, EPA, using localized information to come up with revised risk?” said Alice Chow, chief of the EPA’s regional air quality analysis branch.
The EPA agreed to help.
“Once we have identified in general terms where these areas could have high risk, we encourage the state and local agencies to dig deeply,” Chow said. “If you think this is correct or you don’t think this is correct, please use more localized information to analyze these concerns. So that’s exactly what West Virginia wanted EPA to do.”
The pollutant concentrations used in federal air toxics assessment risk calculations are based on computer model simulations, not actual measurements.
In 2019, the DEP got what acting department spokesman Terry Fletcher says was the most recent and accurate emissions data at the Institute and South Charleston locations so regulators could perform their own dispersion modeling and get a more precise view of potential risks and minimization strategies.
Fletcher said a detailed review of site-specific data in 2019 found the facilities had been overestimating ethylene oxide emissions due to a simplifying calculation on their part. Updated process information showed emission estimates from valves and pumps were greatly reduced.
But EPA press officer David Sternberg said Friday modeling analyses state regulators asked the federal agency to conduct confirmed there were still higher risks in the area, although less widespread.
Fletcher said a state Department of Health and Human Resources review of National Cancer Registry data does not indicate an increase in cancers associated with ethylene oxide in the Institute and South Charleston areas. But Fletcher noted the updated human exposure modeling results still predict potential cancer risk from long-term inhalation exposure to ethylene oxide.
The DEP shared its final air dispersion and human exposure modeling with federal air regulators last month. The EPA will take the lead in explaining the results to the facilities and community.
Leah Barbor, West Virginia field organizer for Moms Clean Air Force, a national network of parents who organize against air pollution, wants the feds to do more than just talk.
“It is time for EPA to take decisive action, including consistent testing of outdoor air near facilities that use the chemical, and to provide timely information with absolute transparency to the surrounding communities,” Barbor said. “All children have the right to breathe clean air, and it is the responsibility of the regulating body to keep our children’s health and well-being in integrity by regulating polluting facilities adequately and with discernment.”
Earlier this month, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General recommended that the agency develop new hazardous air pollutant standards for enforcement at chemical plant area sources that emit ethylene oxide. The office also called on the agency to develop a process to initiate timely reviews of existing, uncontrolled emission sources when new or updated risk information becomes available.
Chemical not new to valley
Ethylene oxide’s presence at Union Carbide facilities in Institute and South Charleston dates decades.
In the late 1970s, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health studies noted workers’ exposure to the chemical at Union Carbide’s Institute and South Charleston facilities.
Two federal class action lawsuits filed by Kanawha County residents against Union Carbide in 2019 tout the studies and the 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment, alleging the company’s ethylene oxide emissions exposed residents in Institute and South Charleston to hazardous levels of the chemical for decades.
The still-unresolved lawsuits filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia contend the pollution prompted residents to turn to medical monitoring to mitigate increased cancer risk.
Union Carbide spokesman Tomm Sprick said the company invests in new equipment, facility modifications and updated emissions control technology to reduce emissions even further across all of its ethylene oxide-producing sites in North America.
“We have long been committed to very high operational and safety practices that consistently meet or exceed regulations and applicable laws,” Sprick said in a statement. “Union Carbide is very proud of our teams who safely operate our ethylene oxide facilities, strive for continuous improvement and help deliver products that consumers need and want for daily life, such as shampoos, detergents, paints and pharmaceuticals.”
Union Carbide’s facilities in Institute and South Charleston have been in compliance with the Clean Air Act in recent years, according to EPA data.
Union Carbide is a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, which owns the South Charleston site where, Sprick said, the corporation operates three production facilities. Union Carbide operates an ethylene oxide distribution facility and a catalyst unit at the Institute site, which Dow sold in 2019 to Houston-based Altivia Ketones and Additives LLC.
“Safety and integrity are at the core of Union Carbide’s operations, and we remain dedicated to reducing ethylene oxide emissions to a level that meets or outperforms EPA regulations and our own aggressive company sustainability goals,” Sprick said. “Union Carbide is constantly applying the best available science and technology, and advanced monitoring capabilities, to more accurately calculate and reduce ethylene oxide emissions.”
Ethylene oxide emissions declined by 86.9 million pounds, or 29%, from 2007 to 2019 nationwide, according to the EPA.
Although Union Carbide’s South Charleston facility reported a significant decline in ethylene oxide emissions from the mid-2010s to 2019, it still released nearly three times as many pounds of the chemical in 2019 (756) as it did in 2007 (270), according to agency data.
“Why are these facilities allowed to release carcinogenic gas into our communities, especially at increasing rates?” Barbor said.
Sternberg said changes in production or processes might lead to changes in the quantities of toxic chemicals a facility reports as released or otherwise managed as waste from one year to another.
The EPA assigns a value called a Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators score to facilities based on all chemical releases, the transport of chemicals through the environment, the size and location of the exposed population and the chemical’s toxicity. High scores identify areas for further investigation but don’t conclusively demonstrate sources of risk, according to the agency.
The U.S. median score for 2019 was 14.
The scores for the Union Carbide facilities in South Charleston and Institute were 732,408 and 350,377, respectively.
Onsite releases of ethylene oxide to air accounted for more than 95% of the total facility-level scores for each facility for 2019, according to Sternberg.
Although Union Carbide’s Institute facility released a larger quantity of ethylene oxide (901 pounds) than its South Charleston facility (756 pounds) in 2019, the latter facility had a higher score because it had a greater surrounding population density and more fugitive emissions that didn’t pass through a stack before release (684 pounds versus Institute’s 458), likely to leading greater exposure, Sternberg said.
People living close to a facility are generally more likely to be exposed to fugitive emissions than to stack emissions because fugitive emissions usually take place closer to ground level.
There has been far more ethylene oxide stored at the Institute facility — an average daily of more than 5.58 million pounds from 2018 through 2020 — than at the South Charleston facility, where an average of 5,490 pounds was stored daily over the same span.
That’s according to required annual Tier II chemical inventory data sheets submitted for the facilities. The data sheets note that ethylene oxide at the Institute site is stored in a below-ground tank and rail cars.
There are no specific usage limits or storage requirements for ethylene oxide in the air permits for Union Carbide’s South Charleston or Institute facilities, Fletcher said.
Movement, not modeling
A report released in 2018 by a group of environmental health and justice organizations found that 70% of people in Charleston live within three miles of a Risk Management Plan facility — a site that is required by federal law to develop such a plan because it uses extremely hazardous substances.
People living in Charleston faced the highest cancer risk from toxic air pollutants of all nine areas nationwide included in the report. Those risks were escalated for those living within three miles of a Risk Management Plan facility in areas with low incomes and low access to healthy foods.
“This valley, I don’t even know what to say,” Nixon said. “It’s been decades, and we’ve been living under these conditions for a long time.”
For Nixon, state and environmental regulators’ cancer risk remodeling runs its own risk of doing nothing to bolster chemical safety in the Chemical Valley.
“We don’t need this data,” Nixon said. “We need actual movement to reduce these problems.”