Plastics are everywhere
Plastics are everywhere, and the industry that makes them is booming. The ubiquity of plastics and other petrochemicals comes at a steep cost to our health, especially for those living near production and processing facilities.
Learn more about:
- The Basics
- Fracking and Plastics
- How Plastics Are Made
- A World Made of Plastic
- The Dangers of Living Near Petrochemical Infrastructure
- Laws and Regulations
- The Environmental Protection Agency
- Worker Health and Safety
- Disposal and Recycling Myths
- Petrochemicals and Climate Change
- National and Global Governance
Tell President Biden and EPA: Protect People from the Petrochemical Industry
What are petrochemicals?
Petrochemicals are chemicals derived from fossil fuels, the remains of plants and animals from hundreds of millions of years ago. By definition these are not renewable. Plastics, detergents, fertilizers, explosives, synthetic fabrics, paints, and flooring are among the many products made out of petrochemicals.
Petrochemicals are everywhere. More than half of the fibers in our clothes are made from plastics, which are the largest group of petrochemicals. We saturate our farmlands in plastic-covered granules of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. We wrap haystacks in plastic and cover our fields in 4000-foot-long sheets of polyethylene “mulch film,” essentially agricultural Saran Wrap.
We play sports with plastic equipment on synthetic rubber turf and plastic grass. Throwaway single-serving plastic bottles of water have become the nation’s most popular beverage, and our cardboard Starbucks cups are lined in polyethylene beneath the paper shell. We even ingest plastic, inadvertently – about a credit card’s worth per week for each of us.
The petrochemical industry does not want us to question this new normal. Manufacturers have tried to convince us that the only problem with plastic is litter. It is not. The ubiquity of plastics and other petrochemicals comes at a steep price -- for oil, gas, and petrochemical workers, for communities in the vicinity of petrochemical production facilities and plastics incinerators, for consumers and patients harmed by the chemicals that leach out of plastic, and for the planet. And we do not have good ways to get rid of plastic waste -- recycling plastic is not the easy fix it is hyped up to be, and it works for only a very small subset of plastics. What’s worse, the plastics industry is promoting a method of incineration under the guise of “advanced recycling” in an effort to exempt plastics burning from air pollution regulations.
What products are made from petrochemicals?
Globally, three quarters of petrochemical manufacturing involves plastics production. Of these plastics, nearly half are single-use “disposables,” used just once before we throw them in the trash. Nearly 40 percent of plastic is used in packaging.
Here are some types of plastic:
Plastic #1 -- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used in water bottles and drink containers.
Plastic #2 -- High density polyethylene (HDPE), used in yogurt cups, milk jugs, shampoo bottles.
Plastic #3 -- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used in water pipes, house siding, cosmetic containers.
Plastic #4 -- Low-density polyethylene (LDPE), used in food wrap and grocery bags.
Plastic #5 -- Polypropylene (PP), used in potato chip bags, face masks, and straws.
Plastic #6 -- Polystyrene (PS), used in cutlery, CD cases, disposable crystal glasses, Styrofoam.
Plastic #7 – the “other” category, including Nylon (used in stockings and carpet), Polyester (used in fabrics and other textiles), and Polycarbonate (used in electronics, baby bottles, refillable water bottles, medical supplies and devices, dental sealants, and the lining of metal cans).
For consumers, plastics #1, 3, 6 and 7 raise some of the most significant concerns about toxic chemical leaching, but all plastics harm public health and the climate. The worst effects are those suffered by workers and communities in the vicinity of plastics production and incineration facilities.
Aside from plastics, other petrochemical products include soaps and detergents, solvents, drugs, fertilizers, pesticides, explosives, synthetic textile fibers and rubbers, paints, epoxy resins, flooring and insulating materials.
The global Covid pandemic has been a boon for many petrochemical sectors, from home- improvement supplies, to disinfectants and single-use personal protective equipment, to carry-out containers for food.
Are plastics and other petrochemicals made from oil, gas, or coal?
Petrochemicals are made from oil (petroleum), gas, or even coal – any of these can serve as the feedstocks for making plastics and other petrochemicals. Oil, gas, and coal are the non-renewable remains of plants and animals from hundreds of millions of years ago, trapped and compressed beneath the sediments of long-ago oceans. These materials matured at different rates, depending on temperature, time and pressure, but all contain hydrocarbons, which are termed “organic compounds” because they contain the elements carbon and hydrogen.
In most cases, crude oil and natural gas liquids are the primary raw materials used to make plastics and other petrochemicals. The selection of feedstock depends on price and availability.
Most petrochemical facilities are built to use either oil- or gas-derived materials; some facilities can handle both feedstocks.
Given the abundance of natural gas in the U.S. (and also in the Middle East), about 90 percent of our petrochemical production comes from processing natural gas. The U.S. is the world’s largest natural gas producer (producing about a quarter of global gas output), followed by Russia, Iran, and China, where output is growing rapidly.
In Europe and Asia, by contrast, 70 percent of petrochemical production is based on naphtha, a distillate from petroleum refining. The U.S. imports vast amounts of the resulting plastics and other petrochemical products, so what U.S. consumers use domestically may be derived from either feedstock.
Plastics and other petrochemicals can also be made from coal. One method is pulverize the coal and heat it to over 3000 degrees Fahrenheit in combination with other chemicals. This process can be used to fabricate yarn, films, and other plastics. Coal is increasingly a feedstock for plastics in China, India, and other countries.
In addition, vast amounts of coal are combusted as a fuel for plastics production, a fact that helps to explain some of the rise in greenhouse gas emissions in Indonesia, South Africa, China and other countries. The U.S. and the European Union are increasingly using plastics produced in these coal-based facilities. There is only one plastics manufacturer in the U.S. that makes plastics from coal, the Eastman Chemical Company in Kingsport, Tennessee. The company has been rocked by malfunctions, explosions, and other releases of toxic chemicals.
What chemicals are combined with the hydrocarbon polymers to make plastics and other petrochemicals?
Petrochemicals are made from fossil-based polymers (from the natural gas or the petroleum naphtha) combined with other fossil-based chemicals. Sometimes the constituent chemicals are called the “additives,” but this is misleading as it suggests they are like something extra on an ingredient list. Rather, the chemicals are integral to making plastics what it is. These chemicals alter performance, functionality, and durability/weather-resistance of the petrochemicals. They are estimated to constitute about 7 to 15 percent of the mass of plastics, on average.
Some metals are used to strengthen plastics, while others, like lead, make plastic more flexible. Phthalates make our shower curtains soft and pliable, and enable the fragrance to linger in our body lotion and laundry detergent. PFAS makes plastics resistant to heat, grease, and water. Bisphenol A makes plastic bottles shatterproof. The ubiquitous UV-328 is used to protect surfaces from the discoloration and weathering caused by sunlight. These chemicals are extremely toxic to human health.
Of the 10,000 chemicals added to plastic, over 2,400 meet one or more criteria for persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity (some meet all three criteria, such as UV-328). EPA allows 667 of these chemicals of concern for use in food-contact plastics alone, and many more in cosmetics and other consumer uses.
Deep Dive into Plastic Monomers, Additives, and Processing Aids
Oceanic long-range transport of organic additives present in plastic products: an overview
Given that most of the plastics made in the US derive from natural gas, what exactly is this gas and where does it come from?
Natural gas (more accurately called “fossil gas”) is a fossil fuel made up of methane and other hydrocarbon gases found deep underground. It is not renewable. The gas is formed from decaying marine microorganisms and vegetative material that lived hundreds of millions of years ago.
The most plentiful compound in natural gas is methane, which constitutes roughly 70 to 90 percent of this gas. Much of the methane is siphoned off for fuel, although methane can also be used to make fertilizer and other products. The accompanying gases (the other 10 to 30 percent) are processed to make fuels, plastics, and other petrochemicals.
Natural gas resources, called “plays” are found in roughly 30 U.S. states. Many of the drilling techniques used today were tested and refined more than a decade ago in the Barnett shale play in Texas. Another early source of gas was the Fayetteville shale in North Arkansas.
More recently exploited shale plays include the Haynesville shale in east Texas and north Louisiana, the Woodford shale in Oklahoma, the Eagle Ford shale in south Texas, and the Marcellus and Utica shales in northern Appalachia. The combined production from the Marcellus and Utica shales accounts for 34 percent of U.S. output.
The top five natural gas-producing states in 2021 were:
Texas 24.6% of US natural gas output
West Virginia 7.4%
What is the difference between “natural gas liquids” and “liquefied natural gas”?
Here is a brief clarification on some confusing terminology. “Natural gas liquids” are not the same as “liquefied natural gas.” The former, natural gas liquids (sometimes abbreviated as NGLs; more accurately called “fossil gas liquids”), are the materials that are central to discussions of petrochemicals.
Natural gas is made up of methane gas and several “natural gas liquids.” These include ethane (used almost entirely for petrochemical production), propane (used partly for fuel and partly as a petrochemical feedstock), butane (myriad uses, e.g., as fuel for cigarette lighters and as a feedstock for the butadiene in synthetic rubber), and pentane (used in shaving cream, in polystyrene foam production, as a solvent in pesticides, etc.). The compounds are in liquid form in the cold, high pressure environment deep underground, thus the name “natural gas liquids.” They become gases at surface pressures and temperatures. Natural gas liquids are used in the production of plastics, detergents, etc. Some, like butane, propane and pentane, are also used for space heating, cooking, and certain gasolines.
“Liquefied natural gas,” or LNG, is different. It is the methane gas portion (the part used for energy) of the natural gas, often still in combination with the ethane (used for petrochemical production) once these gases have been transformed into a liquid state by reducing their temperature to minus 260 degrees F. This is done for shipping and storage. The cooling reduces the volume of the methane and ethane by about 600 times as compared with their gaseous state.
Liquefied natural gas is far worse for the climate than the natural gas that remains a gas. It takes extreme amounts of energy to achieve the significant cooling required to become LNG, to keep it at low temperatures during transport, and to change it back to a gaseous state. These processes are carbon-intensive and involve significant opportunities for leakage. In addition, building the massive LNG infrastructure risks locking in our fossil fuel reliance for decades to come. Liquefied natural gas is extremely flammable and explosive and must be contained and transported in a temperature controlled pressurized container.
In summary, “liquefied natural gas” is methane (often in combination with the ethane) that has been turned into an icy cold dense liquid in a high-energy, carbon-intensive process, so that it can be transported and stored, while “natural gas liquids” are the portion of the natural gas that is used to make plastics and other petrochemicals.
Fracking and Plastics
What's the connection between fracking and petrochemicals?
In the US, the vast majority of plastics and other petrochemicals are made from natural gas, most of which is harvested in a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The fracking process extracts from deep underground a combination of methane gas and other hydrocarbons such as ethane and propane, which are used as petrochemical feedstocks. These “natural gas liquids” are separated from the methane gas, processed at extreme temperatures, and melded with other fossil fuel chemicals to make petrochemicals such as paints, pesticides, and plastics.
Natural gas (the methane in combination with petrochemical feedstocks) can be extracted in several ways, depending on where it is found. In some places, it is hidden in cracks between layers of rock. Here it is called “conventional natural gas.” It is also found as “associated natural gas” alongside deposits of crude oil, or in coal deposits where it is called “coalbed methane.” Elsewhere, it is found in tiny pores or bubbles within sedimentary rocks such as shale or sandstone -- such deposits account for the vast majority of US natural gas production, in the form of fracking.
In other words, unlike the conventional oil and gas drilling methods which harvest the gases that are wedged in cracks between the rocks, fracking extracts the gases from the tiny pores or bubbles found inside the rocks. Roughly 1.7 million fracking wells have been drilled in the US, in addition to millions of conventional oil and gas wells. Less than one percent of US natural gas production in the year 2000 involved fracking, but today roughly 95 percent of new gas wells are hydraulically fractured. There are over 900,000 oil and gas wells currently in operation in the US.
How do well operators extract the gases from the rocks?
Fracking involves drilling a vertical well, and then boring horizontally, sometimes as much as several miles in span. The well is encased in steel and cement. Then a perforating gun is sent into the well, detonating explosive charges that pierce through the casing and cement of the horizontal line.
The next step is to send down into the well several million gallons of fresh water, thousands of tons of sand, and thousands of gallons of chemicals. These materials are injected into the well at extremely high pressure, penetrating the holes in the casing and cracking the surrounding shale rock to release the tiny deposits of methane and other gases.
The fossil fuels flow to the surface and, with them, up come large amounts of the fracking liquids, called “flow-back fluid” or “production brine.” The fracking wastewaters are saturated with salt. They contain some of the fracking chemicals and other injected fluids, as well as heavy metals and radioactive materials from underground.
This flowback fluid is pumped into waiting pools or storage tanks. There is no good way to get rid of the contaminated fracking waste. Some of it is injected underground; some is sold to farmers to irrigate their agricultural fields; and some is used to melt ice and control dust on the roads.
Why are PFAS, benzene, diesel fuel, and other toxic substances used as fracking fluids?
Fracking operators inject chemicals into the well to prevent corrosion and to lubricate the extraction process.
There are more than 1,000 such chemicals in the “fracking fluids.” Any particular well might use hundreds. They include substances with extreme developmental and reproductive toxicity such as arsenic, benzene, cadmium, lead, formaldehyde, chlorine, and mercury. The EPA has identified nearly 200 chemicals used in oil and gas drilling or found in fracking wastewater that are carcinogenic or otherwise toxic to human health.
In 2021, the New York Times published an investigation – based on EPA documents obtained by Physicians for Social Responsibility under the Freedom of Information Act -- which found that fracking companies have been using PFAS chemicals in their wells for the past decade. In 2011, EPA brushed aside the grave concerns of its own scientists and approved the use of these “forever chemicals” as fracking fluids. At least 120 companies have been using PFAS (or chemicals that break down into PFAS) in more than 1,000 wells. PFAS chemicals are highly toxic in minute quantities. They persist in the environment (PFOA has a half-life of 92 years), accumulate in the human body, and have been linked to cancers as well as immune, thyroid, kidney and reproductive problems.
In June, 2022, Colorado became the first state to ban PFAS in oil and gas extraction. The new law prohibits the use of PFAS in fracking fluid starting in 2024.
It is high time that the US EPA ban the use of PFAS in fracking fluid nationwide.
The use of PFAS and other carcinogens in oil and gas drilling is especially detrimental to children, and also to oil and gas workers – one of the highest-risk occupational sectors -- and to firefighters and other emergency responders whose lives are on-the-line during fires, spills, explosions and other incidents.
Is it safe to live near oil and gas development?
No. Scientists have observed an association between proximity to oil and gas infrastructure and elevated risk of illness. For children, this may include childhood leukemia, multiple myeloma, congenital heart defects, other adverse birth outcomes, and childhood asthma. A recent peer-reviewed study conducted by the Yale School of Public Health found that young children living near fracking wells at birth are up to three times more likely to later develop leukemia. Studies of adults are unsettling as well, finding an increased incidence of cancer and heart attacks, as well as elevated mortality incidence downwind of the wells.
As part of the fracking process, toxic chemicals such as benzene and PFAS are injected into the ground and then ultimately resurface along with other materials such as inorganic salts, metals (such as barium and strontium), and radioactive materials (including radium-226 and radium-228). In addition, oil and gas development involves the risk of fires, earthquakes, explosions, and unplanned releases at the wells, connecting pipelines, and on-site processing facilities.
Many of the ill-effects have been linked to fracking-related air pollution. Fracking involves a vast number of harmful air emissions at every stage, from operating the diesel trucks, drilling the wells, mixing the fracturing fluid; flaring the gases, and so on. These processes release particulate pollution, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and other pollutants such as ozone and respirable silica.
The water quality issues associated with fracking raise concerns as well, including chemical spills, leaks, and the contamination of drinking water resources. EPA reported that fracking chemicals can enter the surface water and groundwater from fracking wells and that fracking wastewater can leak from underground fracking waste storage wells. EPA also describes the incidence of “frac hits” in which fracked wells or their fracture networks run into other wells or abandoned wells, and from there the fracking fluids make their way into drinking water resources.
A related issue is the depth of the fracking wells. Natural gas rich shales are found underground, often more than a mile below the earth’s surface. While the deepest oil and gas wells run several miles down, a lot of fracking has been taking place at much shallower depths. A 2015 study found that one in six wells were fracked less than one mile below the surface, at the same depth as known water resources. The Stanford University researchers reviewed 44,000 fracking wells and identified nearly 7,000 of them that extended less than a mile below the surface, posing a threat to drinking water resources.
What what pollutants are released into the air during oil and gas development?
Oil and gas development pollutes the air at every stage, from the drilling site preparation to the processing for fuel or petrochemical products, to the transportation and ultimate combustion as fuel in our homes or as plastic trash in a municipal waste incinerator.
These processes release toxic air pollutants including the carcinogens formaldehyde and benzene. They also generate massive amounts of the potent greenhouse gas pollutant methane (both from leaks and from intentional releases), as well as carbon dioxide from burning the hydrocarbons as fuel.
Natural gas development is a large source of particulate pollution, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and other pollutants such as ozone and respirable silica. Many of these pollutants are carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxicants. The hundreds of toxic chemicals that are used in borehole drilling, and even those injected deep underground, can escape or re-emerge into the air during multiple stages of the “upstream” gas-extraction processes. Natural gas pipelines are also notoriously large sources of escaping methane gas pollution. And for those with gas stoves, the in-home emissions include not only methane but also ultra-fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and formaldehyde.
Oil development is also associated with harmful air emissions linked to cancer, liver damage, immunodeficiency, and neurological symptoms. Pollutants commonly released into the air include particulate matter, nitric oxides, methanol, naphthalene, xylene, toluene, benzene, ethylbenzene, 1,3 butadiene, formaldehyde, and sulfuric acid. Crude oil also contains heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, manganese and nickel, which have been found to contaminate the air and drinking water around oil development sites. A recent study of the toenails (where these chemicals concentrate) of Black, Latino, and Asian American people living near an active oil drilling site in south Los Angeles identified high nickel and manganese concentrations associated with the oil development. Nickel exposure has been linked to cancer and cardiovascular diseases, and manganese to Parkinson’s and other neurological illnesses.
How does oil and gas production affect human health?
Scientists are showing just how unevenly the burden is falling, and how dangerous it is to live in the vicinity of oil and gas facilities. They are helping to focus attention on the multiple, cumulative chemical insults, and the resulting health effects, faced by people residing near oil and gas facilities, including children, low-income people, and people of color.
Here are some noteworthy studies:
(2020) Archives of Toxicology
Critical evaluation of human health risks due to hydraulic fracturing in natural gas and petroleum production
This is an important scientific review characterizing the human health risks that derive from three technical processes involved in oil and gas drilling: the drilling of the borehole, the hydraulic stimulation, and the gas or oil production. The review includes a helpful assessment of epidemiological studies, noting that most have focused only on conventional oil and gas drilling rather than fracking, and few have addressed long-term or chronic impacts. The authors emphasize that the quality of exposure assessment is crucial and often lacking, because most studies rely on “sophisticated but indirect distance measurements or hydraulic fracturing activity metrics and not on measured contaminant concentrations in ambient/indoor air, soil, groundwater, and drinking water.” They also note that the lack of baseline data from before drilling operations has substantially hampered the research and thus our understanding of human health effects. Another difficulty is the secretive nature of the fracking operations and the reluctance to share information on the use of carcinogenic, mutagenic and reproductive toxic substances.
Here is part of the summary:
“There is a great concern regarding the contamination of ground- and surface water during the production phase. Water that flows to the surface from oil and gas wells, so-called ‘produced water’, represents a mixture of flow-back, the injected frac fluid returning to the surface, and the reservoir water present in natural oil and gas deposits. Among numerous hazardous compounds, produced water may contain bromide, arsenic, strontium, mercury, barium, radioactive isotopes and organic compounds, particularly benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes (BTEX). The sewage outflow, even from specialized treatment plants, may still contain critical concentrations of barium, strontium and arsenic. Evidence suggests that the quality of groundwater and surface water may be compromised by disposal of produced water. Particularly critical is the use of produced water for watering of agricultural areas, where persistent compounds may accumulate. Air contamination can occur as a result of several HF-associated activities. In addition to BTEX, 20 hydraulic fracturing-associated air contaminants are group 1A or 1B carcinogens according to the IARC. In the US, oil and gas production (including conventional production) represents the second largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions. High-quality epidemiological studies are required, especially in light of recent observations of an association between childhood leukemia and multiple myeloma in the neighborhood of oil and gas production sites.”
The researchers emphasize the connectedness of oil and gas drilling as part of the bigger petrochemical enterprise. Assessing the risks of the petrochemical sector needs to include upstream processes such as production and transport of hydraulic fracturing chemicals and production water, as well as storage and processing of hydrocarbons and flow-back materials, and associated exposures to workers and communities. In other words, fracking and cracking are intimately interconnected and it is difficult to address one without the other.
(2020) International Journal of Epidemiology
Natural gas development, flaring practices and paediatric asthma hospitalizations in Texas.
Here is a study examining the incidence of childhood asthma cases near fracking wells in Texas. The researchers found up to a 59 percent increase in the odds of hospitalization for asthma among children who lived in Texas ZIP codes with fracking. The results hold across socioeconomic sectors and age groups. The study noted that 16 percent of all Texans live within one mile of an oil or gas drilling site. The air pollution at natural gas drilling sites varies depending on drilling type (including chemicals used), production volume, and extent of gas flaring.
(2018) Environmental Research
Unconventional natural gas development and pediatric asthma hospitalizations in Pennsylvania
(An earlier study in Pennsylvania reached similar conclusions. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2534153
(2016) JAMA Internal Medicine.
Association Between Unconventional Natural Gas Development in the Marcellus Shale and Asthma Exacerbations)
Researchers studied the effects of unconventional drilling/fracking on childhood asthma rates in Pennsylvania, as well. As in Texas, they found increased pediatric asthma-related hospitalizations in kids living in zip codes in which such gas drilling is taking place. Certain air emissions such as 2,2,4- trimethylpentane, formaldehyde, and x-hexane were found to be particularly deleterious.
(2018) Journal of Health Economics
Shale Gas Development and Infant Health: Evidence from Pennsylvania
This 2018 study used detailed data on maternal addresses and GIS information on fracking locations to examine birth outcomes in proximity to oil and gas wells. The study concluded that living near shale gas drilling sites can adversely affect the health of prenatal infants. Babies born to mothers who lived within 1.55 miles of at least one gas well had adverse birth outcomes, and these effects persisted at 2.17 miles. Looking at the influence of well density, the researcher found that each additional well within 1.55 miles of the mother’s residence increases low birth weight and premature birth by 0.4 percentage points and reduces term birth weight by 5 grams.
(2019) Environment International
Congenital heart defects and intensity of oil and gas well site activities in early pregnancy
Proximity to oil and gas wells is associated with pediatric heart defects. University of Colorado researchers studied more than 3300 infants who were experiencing congenital heart defects (affecting the aortic artery and valve, pulmonary artery and valve, conotruncal, or tricuspid valve) and compared them with a control group. The study found that the risk for each type of congenital heart defects was significantly elevated, and increased with proximity to the well and with drilling intensity.
Childhood hematologic cancer and residential proximity to oil and gas development
Here is a study examining blood cancers in children born near oil and gas developments in Colorado. The researchers focus on acute lymphocytic leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, both of which have been increasing in incidence nationally. They look at distance from wells and the number of wells near children’s homes. The study notes that some families in Colorado have literally hundreds of oil and gas wells within a mile of their homes. The researchers found that children and youth with acute lymphocytic leukemia old were more likely to live in proximity to oil and gas wells. The strength of the association varied by age with no association in the 0 to 4 age category. The authors urged further research.
(2018) Environmental Science and Technology
Ambient Nonmethane Hydrocarbon Levels Along Colorado’s Northern Front Range: Acute and Chronic Health Risks
This study out of Colorado found that those residing within 500 feet of an oil and gas facility have a lifetime excess cancer risk of 8.3 per 10,000, in other words, eight times higher than the upper threshold (1 in 10,000) set by the Environmental Protection Agency. This is likely due to exposures to benzene, toluene, and other non-methane hydrocarbons. The researchers also found acute risks for neurological, hematological, and developmental conditions. They monitored the level of air emissions at various distances from the wells. Five hundred feet is the minimum distance that Colorado requires new wells to be set back from existing houses, though older wells may be closer.
(2021) Public Health Nursing
Environmental injustice: Fracking
People living near fracking facilities are routinely exposed to toxic substances such as benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and fine particulate matter (<2.5 micrometers). Proximity to fracking facilities is associated with birth defects, premature births, asthma, migraines, heart disease, and other health issues. Moreover, fracking wells are disproportionately located in poor and minority areas, with associated impacts on those communities.
(2021) Environmental Health Research
Acute myocardial infarction associated with unconventional natural gas development: A natural experiment
This study found that unconventional natural gas development (fracking) is associated with increased acute myocardial infarction (AMI) hospitalization rates among middle-aged men, older men and older women as well as with increased AMI mortality among middle-aged men.
(2022) Nature Energy
Exposure to unconventional oil and gas development and all-cause mortality in Medicare beneficiaries
This study addressed the health of older people living near 2.5 million oil and gas wells. The researchers found a statistically significant elevated mortality risk, with the highest danger for those living closest to the wells. The authors surmised that air pollution from the facilities was responsible for the elevated death risk.
Where are US oil and gas wells?
A 2022 analysis estimates that more than 17 million Americans live within one-half mile of an active oil and gas production site and are potentially exposed to the associated chemical pollution. West Virginia and Oklahoma have the highest percentages of their populations near active wells. In West Virginia, about half of the state’s population lives within a mile of an active well, while in Oklahoma it’s about 47 percent. Ohio ranks third at 24 percent. Texas has the highest number, 4.5 million people, living within a mile of an active well.
SPOTLIGHT: Environmental injustice in Arlington, Texas
Here is a powerful but jarring story from Reveal News and the Center for Investigative Reporting about the health and safety dangers fracking poses to local communities and the unequal pollution burden faced by less affluent minority residents. https://revealnews.org/article/life-in-the-drill-zone/
The investigation describes how the higher wealth neighborhoods in Arlington, Texas (west of Dallas, east of Fort Worth) have managed to fend off the fracking companies, which ultimately end up drilling in lower wealth communities of color. The low-wealth Black and Brown neighborhoods have become densely pocketed with hundreds of gas wellheads. In many cases, the fracking wells are located very near daycare centers and schools, but the industry wants to drill even closer. Eight daycare centers are located within 600 feet of active gas production, for example, and emails show the French company, Total, arguing for an exemption to allow a well head even closer, just 280 feet from a daycare center in a shopping mall. The company insisted that to deny its request would be a violation of state law. [Note that fracking is banned in France, where Total is headquartered.]
Arlington, Texas is located in Tarrant County, which has the highest rate of birth defects among large Texas counties. This may not be a coincidence.
Here is the FracTracker’s Texas map: https://www.fractracker.org/map/us/texas/
What is happening in Tarrant County and in communities across the country brings home how the health burdens of the petrochemical industry are not shared equally. The nation’s lowest wealth neighborhoods and communities of color are targeted for the oil and gas drilling, the pipelines, the many stages of feedstock processing, and ultimately, the incineration of the resulting plastics, nearly half of which are single-use disposables. Meanwhile the vast majority of those who invest in and profit from these petrochemical enterprises, and the politicians who benefit, live hundreds of miles away. For such people to pick up their children from a daycare or school across the street would be unthinkable.
What are venting and flaring?
Well operators routinely release into the air unwanted or excess gases such as volatile organic compounds and hazardous chemicals. This is easier and sometimes more economical for the company than capturing the gases, but the toxic pollutants threaten the health of people living adjacent to the facilities or downwind – oftentimes, communities of color and lower-income people.
When facilities release gases directly into the atmosphere, it’s called venting; when they burn the excess gas using a flame, it’s called flaring. Both venting and flaring release toxic air pollutants such as benzene and toluene, though flaring (burning) releases significantly lower quantities. The burning process destroys some of the toxic chemicals and converts some of the methane to carbon dioxide, a far less potent greenhouse gas. The venting of methane and other gases directly into the atmosphere is more damaging to health and the climate than flaring the excess gases.
Multiple oil and gas production states allow routine venting, and the vast majority allow flaring. Sometimes flaring becomes venting, inadvertently, when the flame goes out.
Although flaring and venting ease pressure inside the equipment and reduce the risk of explosions, it is also true that they are heavily polluting and wasteful, and often they are completely unnecessary: normally there are better ways to achieve the same endpoints.
In particular, it is common for oil companies extracting crude oil to vent the methane (that comes up from the ground with the oil) directly into the air. They do this because they cannot be bothered to invest in the infrastructure needed to capture the methane. Oil drillers also flare some of the gases. Inside Climate News explains the perverse incentives for this climate recklessness:
“While the companies pay royalties to landowners for the liquid petroleum they take, no payments are made for the vented methane, a wasted resource that is more than 80 times more effective at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.”
Although a new rule from the Bureau of Land Management proposes to charge oil producers for the gas they release or burn on federal and Indigenous land, the proposal contains such giant exemptions as to make it largely anemic and toothless. The proposal is a disappointment to Native Americans, in whose communities the oil wells are drilled, flared, and vented.
In January 2023, the organization Earthjustice requested that the BLM hold a public hearing to discuss the proposed new rule. More than 30 organizations signed the Earthjustice letter but
BLM officials chose not to respond.
BLM is not the only entity charged with overseeing oil and gas venting and flaring. EPA too has failed to modernize its air pollution control standards for industrial flares. In August, 2022, the Environmental Integrity Project and nine other environmental and fenceline organizations reached agreements in two lawsuits against EPA, whom they sued for not updating the decades-old standards for flares and for allowing plants to release excessive amounts of hazardous air pollutants and volatile organic compounds into low-income communities of color. The federal Clean Air Act requires the agency to review these standards at least once every eight years to make sure they adequately protect the public and incorporate improvements in technology, but the agency has not updated the standards in 34 years and 26 years, respectively. EPA has now agreed to consider updating and strengthening its standards for the flares used to control toxic air pollutants from many petrochemical plants and storage tanks.
Alaska, Colorado, and New Mexico have tightened their gas flaring and venting rules. They prohibit routine releases, and they only allow flaring and venting during what are called “upsets,” situations in which equipment breaks down, for example, or when there is an unplanned release.
Does oil and gas development contribute to climate change?
Yes. Oil and gas development is a major source of methane pollution, a potent greenhouse gas. Scientists have found that the gases escaping from US oil and gas operations are driving a dangerous spike in global methane emissions. Methane is responsible for roughly a quarter of the current global temperature rise. Over a time-span of 100 years, methane traps about 25 times as much heat as carbon dioxide.
A multi-year research effort by the Environmental Defense Fund found roughly 16 million metric tons of leaked methane from oil and gas wells per year – 60 percent more than the EPA’s calculations. This is enough wasted gas to fuel 10 million homes for a year.
The leaks come from operating gas wells but also from wells that are no longer in use, including the millions of abandoned oil and gas wells.
Oil and gas production and supply chains emit toxic chemicals and climate-heating methane at every turn -- during fracking, along pipelines, and from stoves and other appliances, even when they are turned off. Moreover, fossil fuels that are transformed into plastic continue to emit climate-heating gases throughout the product lifecycle and after disposal, whether by incineration, when landfilled, or as microplastic fragments in our soils and waterways.
What are oil and gas field sustainability certifications?
An increasingly popular green (or greenwashing) strategy of US fossil fuel companies is to certify that their operations are lower methane or in other ways more sustainable than they otherwise might have been. Third-party companies are selling “lower methane” certifications to operators of oil and gas fields that plug methane leaks or reduce water use. While these are positive steps, climate analysts are concerned about the lack of uniform standards among the various certification companies, and about the fact that firms can hand-pick their most sustainable gas fields when certifying the whole company.
Observers note that “gas producers are seeking to profit by giving their fuel a green sheen without the energy sector doing the hard work of actually moving to cleaner alternatives such as wind or solar.”
Like “advanced recycling,” “blue hydrogen,” and carbon capture, the certifications offer a way to help perpetuate the use of carbon-intensive fossil fuels.
What happens to fracked wells after companies extract what they want?
Oil-and-gas regions of the country are littered with abandoned fracking wells in part because of the wells’ extreme decline in productivity. Over the course of their first year, it is not unusual for output to decline by as much as 70 percent, and the numbers continue to fall in the following years. Operators pump into the failing wells exponentially more water, chemicals and sand until they decide to move on to new well sites.
Although filling the old wells with concrete can reduce the release of methane gas and the pollution of nearby water resources, it is common for the operators to cap the wells instead – this is far cheaper. Fracking companies designate the old wells as temporarily “idle,” a status that often continues indefinitely. California, for example, has roughly 37,000 capped ‘idle” wells, over 17,000 of which have been idle for more than 15 years.
Does the federal government limit the pollution from oil and gas production?
Hardly. The federal government barely regulates the oil and gas industry. The fossil fuel companies have been operating in a regulatory void. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, before becoming President George W. Bush’s VP, was the CEO of a major energy company engaged in fracking. Vice President Cheney played an influential role in formulating the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which precludes the federal government from regulating fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act and other environmental laws.
This has left regulation of drilling and fracking to the states, many of which exercise little or no oversight. Multiple states do not even require companies to disclose which toxic chemicals they inject into the ground as fracking fluids. In states that try to regulate fracking, the task can be overwhelming: the average inspector is commonly responsible for hundreds or even thousands of wells.
A handful of states such as New York, Vermont, and Maryland have banned fracking, although it must be said that these states are customers of gas for heating and cooking, among other things. Others, such as Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming, have relatively strict rules. States like Texas are at the permissive extreme – no monitoring, minimal oversight. The Texas Railroad Commission permits oil and gas drilling and carries out groundwater inspections every five years, while the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is in charge of the associated air pollution. Texas CEQ carries out inspections only in response to complaints (if then) or red flags in gas companies’ self-reports, thus monitoring only a tiny fraction of wells. Of Tarrant County’s 4,001 wells, for example, the Texas CEQ inspected 93 in fiscal year 2019 and 134 in fiscal year 2020. The Commission allows drilling companies to obtain a permit “by rule,” meaning without having to be granted permission. In this way, the companies can bypass any individualized emission limits, and can circumvent the requirement for public hearings.
The Obama administration made an initial attempt to regulate the associated air pollution from fracking, putting limits on volatile organic compounds in 2012 and methane in 2016, but those rules only applied to new wells while grandfathering in hundreds of thousands of others. The regulations had hardly gone into effect when they were gutted by President Trump.
President Biden issued an executive order in January 2021 directing EPA to propose a methane rule for new and existing oil and gas operations. In November 2022, the Biden EPA announced new performance standards to reduce methane and other harmful pollutants from the oil and gas industry. The regulatory proposal would apply to new and existing oil and gas operations, adding critical pollution safeguards such as regular inspections at high-polluting wells and at lower-producing sites; incorporating advanced monitoring technologies; and addressing pollution from abandoned wells.
There is still a long way to go in regulating the toxic air and water pollution from oil and gas production and the associated venting and flaring, but the proposed methane rule is a good start.
Here is the November 2022 EPA proposal. https://www.epa.gov/controlling-air-pollution-oil-and-natural-gas-industry/epa-issues-supplemental-proposal-reduce
While Moms Clean Air Force is pleased to see President Biden advancing the methane rule – and we are urging EPA to make it stronger – we are disappointed that the Administration is not doing more to protect the climate and communities at the fenceline of oil and gas drilling. For example, in the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico, inexplicably, the Biden Administration EPA has been undermining its own environmental justice and climate agenda.
This region accounts for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s oil production and almost 15 percent of natural gas production. Although the fossil fuel facilities in the Permian Basin operate in violation of ozone standards and other clean air protections, the EPA has opted not to control the pollution. Not only is the Permian Basin a major source of oil and gas pollution, but it is one of the largest sources of carbon emissions on Earth.
Does fracking cause earthquakes?
Yes. According to the US Geological Service, oil and gas drilling causes earthquakes both from the fracking process itself and from the underground disposal of fracking wastewater. Fracking can cause faults in the rocks to slip.
The USGS explains, “When an air hockey table is off, the puck does not move readily, but when the table is on, the puck glides more easily. Raising fluid pressure [from the fracking liquids] within a fault is like turning on an air hockey table.” The largest such earthquake measured an intensity of 5.8 near Pawnee, Oklahoma in 2016.
Texas has been experiencing a surge in earthquake activity due to oil and gas production. Back in 2017 when the state began monitoring for a seismic connection to fracking, University of Texas geologists recorded 26 such events. But in 2022, they recorded more than 220 earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or higher, most of them in the oil fields of the Permian Basin. In November and December 2022, 5.4 magnitude quakes struck in Pecos, Midland and Odessa, Texas – among the largest earthquakes in the state’s history.
Many of the earthquakes result from the disposal of contaminated wastewater from fracking operations. Most of the liquid – tens of billions of gallons annually in Texas alone – is forced back into the ground. The added fluid pressure reduces the “clamping” between rocks along natural faults and allows them to slip, creating an earthquake. Regrettably, a greater frequency of small earthquakes raises the likelihood of a big one.
The earthquakes raise questions about the structural integrity of buildings, and the resulting human safety risks in a region that lacks building codes. The earthquakes also amplify concerns about the potential re-emergence of the toxic fracking wastes above ground and the contamination of drinking water resources.
How Plastics Are Made
How are fossil fuel resources turned into plastics and other petrochemicals?
Most petrochemicals start out as natural gas liquids or as crude oil. Some begin as coal.
If the raw material is crude oil/ petroleum, an initial step is to process it in a refinery, heating it in a distilling column to separate out the various components.
Like other hydrocarbon mixtures, the crude oil contains various lengths of carbon chains. The first four chains are gases (CH4 – methane, C2H6 – ethane, C3H8 – propane and C4H10 – butane). C5 and above are liquid chains with progressively higher boiling points. The longer ones (C7 and above) are used to make gasoline, diesel fuel, asphalt base, fuel oils, heating oil, kerosene, and other fuels. Chains above C20 form solids, starting with paraffin wax, then tar and finally asphaltic bitumen, which is used to make asphalt roads.
Refineries separate the different-length carbon chains by heating and distilling the crude. The clear liquids in the C5, C6, and C7 range are called petroleum naphtha, which is used for petrochemical production. Petroleum naphtha is a generic term. There are actually hundreds of different types of crude oil, and each has its own composition and boiling points. Each of the nearly 700 petroleum refineries worldwide is designed to process a unique type(s) of crude oil.
There are 130 operable petroleum refineries in the US as of January 2022. Refineries are enormous, sometimes occupying as much land as several hundred football fields. The largest refinery is at Port Arthur, Texas. Here is a map of US oil refineries from Oil Change International. http://refineryreport.org/
If the raw material is coal, what happens next is considered one of the most highly polluting ways to make plastics, controversial even within the fossil fuel industry. One oil company executive has described coal-to-plastics facilities as “massive CO₂ machines that make chemicals as a sidestream.” Companies in India, China, Australia and other countries have been forging ahead with a range of new processes to make PVC plastic and other petrochemical products from coal. The US has one manufacturer that uses coal gasification to make plastics, the Eastman Chemical Company in Kingsport, Tennessee. The company has had multiple malfunctions and explosions. Essentially the process involves mixing pulverized coal with an oxidant, usually steam, air or oxygen, at super-high temperatures – close to 3300 degrees Fahrenheit. The process produces synthetic gas and also methanol and acetic acid that can be used to make yarn, films, and other plastics.
If the raw material is natural gas, the first steps usually take place at the wellhead, or wherever the fractionator or processing station is located. The goal is to purify the methane (CH4) and remove any accompanying crude oil or water as well as contaminants. The natural gas liquids (which are the petrochemical feedstocks -- mostly ethane, propane, butane and pentane) are separated out, as are contaminants such as mercury and hydrogen sulfide. Scrubbers may be used to remove sand and other large-particle impurities. There are many variations to these processes.
What is the function of a cracker plant?
Whatever the origin of the hydrocarbon feedstocks, the raw materials are then transported to processing facilities. In a “cracker” facility, the ethane, propane, butane, petroleum naphtha, and other constituents are heated to very high temperatures, often more than 1500 degrees F (or double that for the coal-to-plastics gasification process) to break apart or “crack” the molecular bonds and to re-arrange the atoms. There are various types of crackers that can be used, depending on the feedstock and the desired products.
In general, cracking the ethane or the petroleum naphtha produces ethylene (the most important base chemical in the world) while cracking the propane results in propylene. Traditionally the two are produced together, although in recent years many of the new cracker plants are designed to process only ethane, the primary natural gas liquid.
As the simplest chemical formulation, ethane requires the highest temperatures to crack. It takes enormous energy to break apart the molecular bonds. The ethane molecules (C2H6) lose two hydrogens, which form their own stable molecule, H2, leaving ethylene (C2H4).
After extreme heating in the cracker, the gases are then moved to a gigantic quench tower in which they are cooled by spraying them with water. The next steps involve compression and refrigeration to condense the ethylene and other gases into liquid form. The resulting liquids are then moved to fractionation towers in which the temperatures are kept higher at the bottom and lower at the top. The different chemical compounds, such as ethylene and propylene, separate out in accordance with their boiling points.
The cracked compounds ethylene and propylene can be used to make a multitude of plastics, detergents, solvents, pesticides, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, lubricants, asphalt, and so on.
What is polymerization?
The next step is often polymerization, a high-energy process to make the hydrocarbon molecules into polymer chains. Some ethane cracker complexes include multiple polymerization units, while other facilities transport the intermediate materials elsewhere for the polymerization. The process can take different forms depending on the desired strength, elasticity, and other characteristics of the resulting material.
Polymerization is accomplished by adding a catalyst material under high temperatures and pressures. There are various catalysts in use, and many are highly toxic. The most commonly used catalyst is one patented by Phillips 66. It incorporates hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen that has been shown to cause lung cancer in humans when inhaled. A far less common but equally worrisome catalyst is radioactive depleted uranium, used by Ascend Performance Materials in Alvin, Texas.
The chemical reactions in the polymerization process cause the molecules to combine together to form polymer chains. Ethylene can be made into polyethylene, the most common form of plastic. Polyethylene is also used as an intermediary to make other plastics such as the polystyrene used in Styrofoam. Likewise, most propylene is made into polypropylene.
Any of a vast number of chemical constituents and collateral feedstocks can be combined with ethylene, propylene, polyethylene, or polypropylene at various stages of processing. Carbon black is one of the most plentiful components, used to fill, strengthen and color plastics, including synthetic rubber tires. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is made by combining ethylene with chlorine. There are myriad possibilities.
The output is often small plastic pellets called nurdles. Less than 5 mm in size, these tiny pre-production microplastics are used in the production of plastics products. Nurdles are made from polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, and other plastics or synthetic resins. A single ethane cracker facility may produce more than a million tons of nurdles per year. Nurdles are transported by rail, barge, or truck to factories that transform them into different plastic products.
What happens if the ethylene is combined with oxygen?
Rather than transform the ethylene into polymer chains, another chemical pathway is to mix it with oxygen and pass it through a reactor at super-high temperatures, creating ethylene oxide, a highly flammable gas that is a potent human carcinogen.
Some ethylene oxide gas is used as a sterilant for medical equipment and as a fumigant for spices and other seasonings. There is also a “special needs registration” in North Carolina to use the ethylene oxide to treat beehives and beekeeping equipment.
Most ethylene oxide is transported by rail to chemical plants around the country. It is used as a chemical intermediate in the production of ethylene glycol (antifreeze), plastics, detergents, adhesives, and other petrochemicals. Ethylene oxide is a key component of surfactants, which are products that reduce surface tension. Such products are useful for paving roads, fueling cars, washing clothes, etc.
The ethylene oxide can be mixed with alcohol and a catalyst and heated at high temperatures, creating alcohol alkoxylates surfactants. These are then shipped to Proctor and Gamble and other companies to make Mr. Clean, Tide, Crest, Bounty, Tampax, and other household products.
Ethylene oxide is also found in cigarette smoke. It is genotoxic and mutagenic, and is carcinogenic by inhalation, with the strongest human data linking it to lymphoid, breast cancers, and leukemia.
A World Made of Plastic
What were some early chapters in the history of plastics production?
Billiards was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in mid-1800s America. There were over 800 pool halls in Chicago alone. But to fabricate the balls meant traveling to Africa, shooting elephants, and harvesting their tusks. An average tusk could supply only enough ivory for three balls. Substitute materials like wood and iron did not roll evenly nor have the desired rebound. In 1863 a billiard enthusiast and entrepreneur held a contest to find a replacement for ivory in the billiard balls. Among the losing entries were balls made from one of the earliest partially-synthetic plastics, called “celluloid.”
Thanks in part to the interest in materials science that ensued, the first fully synthetic plastic (made from coal tar and methanol) debuted in 1907. The widely acclaimed new product, “Bakelite,” was “born of fire and mystery, having the rigor and brilliance of glass, the lustre of amber from the isles,” in the words of Time Magazine. Some welcomed this early plastic as a miracle material.
(That was a century ago. As of 2017, the global production of plastics surpassed 18.2 trillion pounds, and currently the world is churning out a trillion pounds a year.)
In the following years, the emerging petrochemical sector in America benefitted greatly from the First World War’s demand for warfare agents. These included smoke-producing compounds, explosives, and poisons. DuPont made its early fortune in explosives, while Dow made mustard gas, a toxic blistering agent used in chemical warfare. In 1921, the Union Carbide company began ethylene production.
During the 1930s, corporate chemists developed many new polymer technologies in their laboratories, but it was not until World War II that the industry was provided the vast government resources to take these discoveries from development to rapid commercialization. The US government’s enormous investments in the wartime private sector factories and in infrastructure, from ports to processing plants to pipelines, positioned the petrochemical industry to grow exponentially. The sector benefited from formidable subsidies and from tax policies that enabled the cheap production of low-cost feedstocks.
On the other side of the Atlantic, one of the biggest players in petrochemicals was BASF, which had started as a dye manufacturer and during World War I produced the chlorine gas used to poison soldiers in the trenches. In 1925, BASF helped found IG Farben, a German chemical cartel that supplied petrochemicals for the Nazi war machine and operated a synthetic rubber and oil factory dependent on slave labor at the Monowitz concentration camp. IG Farben produced a pesticide known as Zyklon B which was used to exterminate more than 1 million people during the Holocaust. (In the post-war years, a newly re-formed BASF began operating multiple petrochemical facilities in the US and globally.)
The petroleum refining and polymerization technologies that were developed during the war became highly profitable, enabling chemical manufacturers to create pesticides, consumer goods, textiles, and pharmaceuticals. Starting in the late 1940s and continuing into the 1960s, the petrochemical industry made it their mission to replace cotton, leather, wood, metal and ceramics with plastics. Manufacturers started with things like bottles, dishes, toys, and clothing. The timing could not have been better, as a booming middle class moved into the new suburban sprawl; larger homes had lots more space to fill, and station wagons offered convenient transport to Walmart and other big box stores.
By the 1950s and 1960s, as households became more crammed with plastic goods – how many plastic combs, Tupperware containers, Barbie dolls, plastic laundry baskets or Melamine plastic dishes does a family need? -- the industry came to a momentous realization: Its durable forever-resins would only remain profitable if people threw them away and bought more. As Modern Packaging Magazine’s editor put it, their future was “in the trash can.” A series of ads in Life magazine featured the first throwaway “‘glass’ nice enough for entertaining.” These early single-use plastics were made from “pure porcelain-smooth polystyrene” and were “absolutely, positively, guaranteed disposable.” By the 1960s, the disposables sector was becoming plastics’ largest market.
For consumers, one of the most visible symbols of this transition came in the form of the now- ubiquitous plastic bags, patented by a Swedish company in 1965. By 1979 such bags had taken over 80 percent of the European bag market and the industry was aggressively marketing them in the US and other countries. Safeway and Kroger switched to plastic bags in 1982, and by the end of that decade plastic had replaced nearly all paper bags around the world. We use one trillion new plastic bags each year...roughly 126 bags for every adult or baby on this planet. The average American uses almost three times that number, roughly one per day. Most plastic grocery bags are made from high-density polyethylene (#2 plastic), but the smaller, thinner ones (such as produce bags and sandwich baggies) are low-density polyethylene (#4 plastic).
In the past 20 years, global production of plastics has skyrocketed, surpassing total output from the prior 50 years. More than 40 percent of plastic is now disposable, much of it handled for mere seconds or minutes before discard.
How Postwar Ads Got Us Hooked On 'Disposable' Single-Use Plastic
What are some milestones in the commercial introduction of plastics?
1933 Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), used in water pipes, house siding, flooring, cosmetic containers, etc. PVC is made by combining chlorine and ethylene together with phthalates, lead, and other additives. Many consider it the most toxic polymer type. (Plastic #3)
1937 Polystyrene (PS), used in cutlery, CD cases, disposable crystal glassware (Plastic #6)
[Note: some polystyrene is designated as expanded, or EPS. This category includes Styrofoam cups, clamshells, meat trays, and other packaging.]
1938 Nylon, used in stockings, carpet
1939 Low-density polyethylene (LDPE), used in food wrap, grocery bags, trash bags, trays, squeeze bottles (Plastic #4)
1941 Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used in water bottles, drink containers, peanut butter jars, cookie trays, etc. (Plastic #1)
1943 Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), used in Teflon, wiring insulation
1951 Polyester, used in textiles, fabrics
1954 High density polyethylene (HDPE), used in yogurt cups, shampoo bottles, cereal liners, freezer bags, ice cream containers, detergent bottles, etc. (Plastic #2)
1957 Polypropylene (PP), used in potato chip bags, face masks, ice-cream tubs, straws (Plastic #5)
1958 Polycarbonate, used in electronics, food packaging, medical devices (included along with nylon, acrylic, and various fibers in the “Other” Plastic #7 category)
1971, Kevlar, used in military armor and sports safety gear, bicycle tires, and brake pads.
The world is shifting away from coal, oil, and gas, but what about petrochemicals, which are derived from fossil fuels too?
Renewable energy sources such as solar and wind are becoming viable options for reliable, low-cost energy. They are increasingly taking the place of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. Not surprisingly, the fossil fuel sector is determined to make up for the withering profit stream.
The fossil industry solution lies in plastics and other petrochemicals. These synthetic materials have become the lifeline for a sector intent not to let climate change and the promise of renewable energy interfere with their bottom line.
With petrochemicals strategically embedded in every sphere of our economy and in virtually all types of consumer and commercial goods, plastics are more difficult to replace than coal, petroleum, and natural gas. The industry has spent decades supplanting glass, metals, paper, and other non-synthetic materials and re-use-and-refill systems, and convincing consumers that single-use plastics are the ultimate in hygiene and modernity.
Some surveys suggest that more than 70 percent of Americans do not even realize that plastic is made from natural gas, coal, and oil. And chemical lobbyists have managed to persuade state and federal regulators that plastics are somehow environmentally sound and are part of a “circular economy.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
So, while fossil fuel energy systems face an uncertain future, the petrochemical sector is surging. Plastics production has nearly doubled over the past two decades, and has expanded twenty-fold in the past half century. And 2022 has been the biggest year ever for launching new US petrochemical production facilities, known as “cracker” plants. The manufacture of plastics is expected to double again in the next twenty years and to nearly triple by 2060. Already the petrochemicals market is valued at over 500 billion dollars globally.
The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change (Beyond Plastics, Bennington College)
Is the world facing a glut in plastics?
Yes. The world is facing a glut of plastics production, with capacity exceeding demand every year since 2015. According to an analyst at the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie, we are adding far more capacity than what we can consume, both domestically and internationally. Profits for US producers are expected to decline significantly given the large and growing amounts of plastics feedstocks and production capacity worldwide. Prospective investors are hesitant to fund new petrochemicals infrastructure since expansion could result in “stranded assets.”
The Directory of Chemical Producers lists more than 20,000 chemical manufacturing facilities worldwide. At least 120 ethylene manufacturing projects are under construction or in the initial stages of development around the globe, according to the firm GlobalData. These include large ethylene production complexes in Russia and Canada and 36 projects in China. Gigantic new facilities are underway in the US, as well.
One outcome of the glut in supply is that companies are aggressively seeking out new markets, both for single-use plastics and for higher-end niche markets. Deloitte points out, for example, that the average plastics content in an automobile is less than 10 percent, offering plastics companies the chance to innovate with new high-performance materials that could reduce weight and improve fuel efficiency.
The economic picture is complicated by the massive infrastructure investment required. According to the chemical industry trade group, the American Chemistry Council, the industry invested $200 billion in 333 plastic and other chemical projects between 2010 and 2018. This includes expansions of existing facilities, new plants, and associated infrastructure such as pipelines. Ethane crackers and other facilities are enormously expensive to build, and the industry would not walk away from them without a huge fight. For petrochemical manufacturers, the key is to use these factories and pipelines as much as possible and for as long as possible. With each new multi-billion-dollar cracker, we are locking in extended future emissions. The challenge for people concerned about pollution is clear: Stop the petrochemical buildout, or face toxic and climate-heating pollution for decades to come.
Do petrochemical companies revitalize economically depressed and stagnant communities?
Many communities are desperate to attract businesses and sources of employment. It can be very enticing when an industry promises much-needed economic development, even if the company has a bad track record. Residents rarely are given a choice as to how to fill the economic void, and often politicians seem to suggest that there are no alternatives. For states and localities, winning these industry contracts can be competitive and expensive, often including significant tax breaks, regulatory waivers, and other subsidies. Local communities benefit economically from an initial surge of trucking and construction jobs, but as a rule, few locals are able to secure employment once the plants are built.
While it is true that jobs in the extraction, processing and pipeline industries pay relatively well, in practice the number of such jobs has declined over the past 20 years as the industry has become more automated. A report by the BW Research Partnership found that the fossil fuel industry does not actually generate much employment. The researchers determined that clean energy – not fossil energy -- is the biggest job creator across the US energy sector, employing almost three times as many workers as the fossil fuel extraction and generation sector.
In Pennsylvania, for example, there are far more workers in renewables, energy efficiency, clean vehicles, and grid modernization than in the fossil fuel industry – even though the state is the county’s second largest producer of natural gas. Petrochemical companies receive huge subsidies from state and local governments, yet they do not contribute proportionately to employment opportunities nor to the tax base on which local economies rely. As discussed below, Louisiana’s situation is the most extreme in this regard.
There are alternative economic pathways that may serve communities better besides the petrochemical supply chain. Organizations are working with labor unions, businesses, civic associations, and legislators to help ensure a just transition for workers and communities as we move beyond the fossil-fuel based economy.
Two examples are the Ohio River Valley Institute and the World Resources Institute. The Ohio River Valley Institute has been studying ways to shift communities from coal, gas, and other fossil fuels to the industries that support local development. They point to Centralia, Washington as a promising model. Centralia transitioned from strip mining and operating a coal-fired power plant to a range of energy efficiency programs.
The World Resources Institute has been identifying ways to build equitable low-carbon communities while transitioning fossil fuel workers to clean energy jobs. For example, WRI suggests that there is a huge need to clean up abandoned coal mine sites and to plug orphan oil and gas wells. Workers from the petrochemicals and other fossil fuel sectors have the skills needed for this important work.
What is the "petrochemical lock-in?"
Petrochemical production facilities are expensive to build and cheap to operate. It costs one to five billion dollars, or sometimes more, to construct a new ethane-cracker plant to make plastics, so once these plants are built, there is an incentive to keep using them at full capacity for as many decades as possible.
The petrochemical industry has evolved remarkably little since inception. It is characterized as stagnant rather than nimble. The large and heavily subsidized initial expenditures and relatively low operating costs translate into scant motivation to try anything new or different. The industry focus is on recompensing the costs of construction and turning a profit. The sector has become “locked in” to a small number of platform chemicals that have remained the dominant feedstocks since the 1960s.
Rather than innovate, the petrochemical industry is engaged in a vigorous effort to develop new markets and to hang on to the old ones to prolong and extend the return on investment. The continued build-out of ethane crackers and other petrochemical facilities comes with the risk of locking in the production of toxic emissions and planet-heating gases well into the future.
Plastic dinosaurs – Digging deep into the accelerating carbon lock-in of plastics
The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change
Are governments subsidizing the petrochemical industry?
Yes. The fossil fuel industry receives large government subsidies. A September 2021 assessment by the International Monetary Fund (based on data from 191 countries) found that global fossil fuel subsidies were $5.9 trillion in 2020 or about 6.8 percent of GDP, and are expected to rise to 7.4 percent of GDP in 2025.
The IMF Working Paper concludes, “Efficient fuel pricing in 2025 would reduce global carbon dioxide emissions 36 percent below baseline levels, which is in line with keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees, while raising revenues worth 3.8 percent of global GDP and preventing 0.9 million local air pollution deaths.”
The IMF and multiple climate think tanks have stated that subsidies are one of the biggest roadblocks – and among the most important levers – in combatting the extremely powerful petrochemical lobby.
Some subsidies take the form of hard cash, but most operate by removing expenses from the petrochemical facilities’ balance sheets so they’re not restricted by zoning, taxation, and environmental regulations.
The IMF paper calls out the “stubbornly high” externality of local air pollution, contributing to substantial premature mortality. Second worst, it says, are the subsidies for climate-heating, which include things like crop damage. Governments subsidize the polluters by releasing them from responsibility for toxic air emissions and greenhouse gases.
“Underpricing for local air pollution costs is the largest contributor to global fossil fuel subsidies... accounting for 42 percent, followed by global warming costs (29 percent), other local externalities such as congestion and road accidents (15 percent), explicit subsidies (8 percent) and foregone consumption tax revenue (6 percent).”
In the US, the IMF says fossil fuel subsidies account for $662 billion ($2,006 per person per year). Roughly 20 billion are direct subsidies, with 20 percent currently allocated to coal and 80 percent to natural gas and crude oil. This is 10 times more than federal spending on education. The market distortions include assistance with technology transfer, tax breaks, grants, soft loans, and price controls.
It goes without saying that the opportunity cost of all these fossil fuel subsidies is enormous as the world seeks to transition to a more healthy and sustainable future.
The Environmental and Energy Study Institute describes the subsidy issue as follows: “In seeking fiscal reforms that have the potential to save taxpayer dollars while simultaneously addressing greenhouse gas emissions, phasing out subsidies for the fossil fuel industry should be a priority for federal policymakers. These subsidies aid an industry that is mature, well-established, and with an abundant private financing stream. Reducing the subsidies fossil fuel stakeholders receive can help correct inefficient economic interventions into energy markets, save billions of taxpayer dollars, and reduce negative social and environmental impacts.”
The Atlantic sums up the problem more succinctly, “The plastics industry hasn’t had to account for the true costs of its operations...including the price of what it has burned, drummed, dumped, lagooned, landfilled, injected, spilled, incinerated, sent up the stack, or drained out the outfall pipe.”
Fossil Fuel Subsidies: A Closer Look at Tax Breaks and Societal Costs (July 2019)
How much profit is the oil, gas, and petrochemical industry making?
An analysis of World Bank data found that the industry has been making $2.8 billion dollars per day for the past 50 years. In 2022, profits were expected to double. The assessment includes both fossil fuel companies and petrostates. The vast profits have been boosted by cartels of countries artificially restricting supply.
The staggering numbers help explain the oil and gas industry’s outsized influence in the political sphere, their capacity to spread misinformation, and their power to delay action to address the climate crisis.
What is the role played by banks, asset managers, investors, trade associations, and other financial agents in the plastics supply chain?
Many industry observers are pointing to the investors, banks, and other petrochemical financiers for their pivotal role in the petrochemical landscape.
Getting hold of the financial details on the petrochemical buildout may feel like a tall order for all but the most financially-savvy among us, but fortunately The Minderoo Foundation, an Australian philanthropy, has published an informative report.
Minderoo has been seeking to bring greater transparency to the plastics supply chain. The Foundation is analyzing the financial flows, the corporate commitments, and the government policies, in search of key levers with which to influence the industry. Minderoo is focused on plastics because these materials make up 75 percent of the petrochemical sector and are seen as a potential life raft for the oil and gas industry.
Here are the five major findings of their report:
1. In 2019, just 20 polymer producers accounted for more than half of all single-use plastic waste generated globally – and the top 100 accounted for 90 per cent. ExxonMobil and Dow – both based in the USA – top the list, followed by China-based Sinopec, with these three companies together accounting for 16 per cent of global single-use plastic waste. Of approximately 300 polymer producers operating globally, a small fraction hold the fate of the world’s plastic crisis in their hands: their choice, to continue to produce virgin polymers rather than recycled polymers, will have massive repercussions on how much waste is collected, managed and leaks into the environment.
2. Major global investors and banks are enabling the single-use plastics crisis. Twenty institutional asset managers – led by US companies Vanguard Group, BlackRock and Capital Group – hold over US$300 billion worth of shares in the parent companies of these polymer producers, of which an estimated US$10 billion comes from the production of virgin polymers for single-use plastics. Twenty of the world’s largest banks, including Barclays, HSBC, Bank of America, Citigroup, and JPMorgan Chase are estimated to have lent almost US$30 billion for the production of these polymers since 2011.
3. There has been a collective industry failure to transition away from fossil-fuel-based feedstocks.
The 100 largest polymer producers all continue to rely almost exclusively on “virgin” feedstocks. In 2019, production of recycled polymers from plastic waste accounted for no more than two per cent of total output. Over 50 of these companies received an “E” grade – the lowest possible – when assessed for circularity, indicating a complete lack of policies, commitments or targets.
4. In the next five years, global capacity to produce virgin polymers for single-use plastics could grow by over 30 per cent – and by as much as 400 per cent for individual companies. An environmental catastrophe beckons: much of the resulting single-use plastic waste will end up as pollution in developing countries with poor waste management systems. The projected rate of growth in the supply of these virgin polymers is in line with the historical rate of growth in demand for single-use plastics – which will likely keep new, circular models of production and re-use “out of the money” without regulatory stimulus.
5. Single-use plastic waste is an entrenched geopolitical problem. Transitioning away from the take-make-waste model of single-use plastics will take more than corporate leadership and “enlightened” capital markets: it will require immense political will. This is underscored by the high degree of state ownership in these polymer producers – an estimated 30 percent of the sector, by value, is state-owned, with Saudi Arabia, China, and the United Arab Emirates the top three. In addition, it will likely require concerted action on the international political stage to resolve deep-rooted regional imbalances and inequities. High income countries are typically supplying low and lower-middle income countries with significant volumes of polymer; and while this latter group of countries generates far less single-use plastic waste per person, the reverse is true in terms of mismanaged waste and plastic pollution.
The report notes that institutional asset managers and global banks are providing billions of dollars to companies that produce polymers from fossil fuels – as much as 100 times more than they provide to companies trying to shift to a circular economy. This asymmetry urgently needs to be reversed.
The lack of disclosure requirements for producers of single-use plastics has created an accountability gap that neither rewards pioneer companies nor encourages positive practices.
The report includes recommendations for each sector, for example urging that the single-use plastic footprint become a mandatory reporting metric in carbon accounting.
Why should we control the use of plastics in the health care system?
Like other sectors, the health care industry can reduce its reliance on plastic and can begin to eliminate the most toxic chemicals from the plastics that remain in use. The organization Health Care Without Harm, which works with tens of thousands of hospitals and health care centers around the world, is urging governments and international plastics treaty negotiators NOT to exempt the health care sector from any plastics restrictions or phasedowns, for the sake of protecting patients as well as communities.
Rather, the world must tackle the plastics problem in health care with the same rigor and sense of urgency as in other sectors. The health care sector in the US procures extraordinary amounts of single-use plastics, from Styrofoam cups to plastic surgical tools to throw-away blood pressure cuffs. The use of disposables increased during the coronavirus pandemic, and while this seemed reasonable in those first months of the crisis -- given the uncertainties about disease transmission – the shift toward more and more single-use plastic in health care continued long after we realized the actual airborne routes of transmission. Many throwaway plastics are part of the “hygiene theater” that continues today.
While it is true that certain single use plastics are sensible, and even life-saving -- including surgical gloves, syringes, and IV lines – this is only a small subset of the plastics used in health care. Health Care Without Harm explains that – for most plastics in health care – we have better options.
“Before plastic swamped health care systems, health care facilities would disinfect or sterilize products for reuse in-house. In many parts of the world, that continues: certified device reprocessing companies will clean and disinfect products, extending their useful lives and reducing costs for customers.”
The powerful lobby of the health care industry has a long history of fighting against health and environmental protection rules for its use of toxic chemicals in plastics, despite the availability of safe alternatives. This includes everything from PFAS chemicals in medical textiles to lead in PVC medical sensors to phthalates in medical devices. Aside from the community and planetary effects of plastics production and disposal, these plastic health care products are harmful to the well-being of those seeking medical care. For example, the medical devices used for respiratory assistance, infusion therapy, enteral nutrition and transfusion contribute to high levels of metabolites of DEHP (di-(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate) in babies that spend time in neonatal intensive care units. DEHP is a very potent phthalate, part of a class of chemicals that mimic the body’s hormones and can disrupt developmental processes. Phthalates can damage the developing brain, liver, heart, lungs, male reproductive tract and other organs.
The phthalate chemical DEHP is used to soften PVC and other vinyl plastics, thus making food packaging, raincoats, shower curtains and other products more pliable. In the health care setting, the chemicals are extremely common in blood bags, catheters, disposable gloves and other medical products. IV bags and tubing can contain as much as 40 percent DEHP by weight. DEHP is ubiquitous in neonatal intensive care units, found in feeding tubes, fluid bags, syringes, respiratory support tubes, intravenous lines, nasal cannulas, catheters, incubators, among other devices.
The DEHP phthalate is not chemically bound to the plastic in which it is used. Therefore, it leaches out of the plastic and dissolves into the blood, other liquids, food, or skin with which the plastic comes in contact. Exposure can also take place from the room’s air, especially in hospital settings where there are such large quantities of PVC and DEHP devices present. DEHP is associated with hormonal, cardiovascular, immunological, neurological, reproductive, and other effects including possible cancers. There are safer substitutes that do not contain phthalates.
PVC plastic and DEHP are just one example. The health care industry is rife with opportunities to reduce the use of single-use plastics and to switch to safer products. Many alternative systems and materials are already available, while others have been designed but not yet commercialized on a large scale. Some hospitals and clinics are sanitizing and re-using everything from medical gowns and surgical instruments to dishware. Surgical tools, for example, can be sterilized with steam and pressure in an autoclave, while laundry and catering practices can be re-configured to favor re-use systems. Health care facilities can protect patients from plastics chemicals that cause cancer and interfere with the body’s hormones. At the same time, they can save money and dramatically reduce the amount of single-use plastic supplies that they need to procure and ultimately to dispose of.
Health Care Without Harm
Polyvinyl chloride in health care
Do we really need so much single-use packaging?
It seems like everything we buy these days is wrapped in multiple layers of plastic. Nearly 40 percent of the plastics produced globally are used in packaging, much of it tossed after a single use.
Do we really need all this plastic packaging? The answer is clearly no. Americans discarded 51 million tons of wrappers, bottles and bags in 2021 – about 309 lbs. of plastic per person. For now, most consumers have little choice but to continue using these massive quantities of plastic, from throwaway takeout containers (even when dining in!) to individually-wrapped cucumbers. Adding to the challenge, the Internet age has helped launch a packaging arms race, one that has only intensified with the booming e-commerce and meal-delivery services of the pandemic. Clearly the packaging problem is not one that can be solved on the basis of individual consumer responsibility.
A handful of governments around the world are starting to take action, with varying degrees of ambition and success. Australia and many African and Asian nations, for example, have bans on single-use plastic bags. Here are three examples of more wide-reaching initiatives:
Canada’s single-use plastics prohibition went into effect in December, 2022. The Regulations prohibit the manufacture, import and sale of single-use plastic checkout bags, cutlery (e.g., plastic forks, knives, spoons, and chopsticks), foodservice ware made from or containing problematic plastics (Styrofoam, PVC, black carbon), ring carriers (surrounding beverage containers), stir sticks, and straws (with an exception allowing single-use plastic flexible straws for those who need them).
In 2019, the European Parliament voted to ban the most common plastic beach litter, including single-use plastic cutlery, cotton buds, straws and stirrers. Other provisions of the law include a ban on single-use polystyrene cups and those made from oxo-degradable plastics that disintegrate into tiny fragments. Now the European Union is contemplating more sweeping actions to ban single-use plastics, including such things as mini shampoo bottles in hotels and throwaway cups in restaurants for customers dining in. The draft legislation would include a mandatory deposit and return scheme for single-use plastic drink bottles and metal cans, and restrictions on excess packaging in e-commerce. The proposal incorporates timelines for a larger phaseout of single-use plastics and a transition to refill and re-use systems.
Chile passed legislation in May 2021 that aims to rid the food and beverage industry of all disposable packaging including single-use plastics within three years. Unlike some other national and local restrictions, the Chilean ban extends to other materials including cardboard and plastic-polymer coated paper. The law aims to reduce waste generation by eliminating single-use products in the food and beverage industry, certifying plastic products, and regulating the use and composition of disposable plastic bottles.
The United States lags behind many other countries in restricting the use of throwaway plastics. In June, 2022, the US Interior Department said it will phase out the sale of single-use plastic products in national parks and other public lands by 2032, not exactly an ambitious timeline. More hopeful are the efforts of the General Services Administration (GSA), which is considering a phaseout of US federal purchasing of single use plastics. The GSA published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking in July, 2022, seeking public input on a proposed phaseout of the federal purchasing of single use plastics for packaging and shipping.
Transitioning away from single-use plastics will take enormous initiative and creativity, from commercializing safer materials made from “green chemistry” to installing dishwashers and filtered drinking water stations in schools. Single-use plastic phaseouts, bottle deposits and plastic bag restrictions, preferential purchasing policies, divestment campaigns and industrial composting facilities can all aid in this transition away from unnecessary plastic packaging.
A sensible first step would be to follow the lead of Taiwan, South Korea, and New Zealand in phasing out PVC plastic food and beverage packaging. PVC contains DEHP and other phthalate chemicals that readily leach from the plastic and wreak havoc with the body’s immune system.
It is worth acknowledging that plastic packaging can be very alluring, even for the most die-hard among us. Here is an excerpt from The Atlantic: “...opening up a brand-new purchase is the carefully orchestrated emotional crescendo of the consumer experience, and it has the power to give basically anyone a dopamine hit... At this peculiar moment in American consumer history, the experience of opening and handling a purchase can be more important than the thing itself....
With the right packaging, this moment can feel a bit like Christmas morning.... YouTubers and Instagram influencers don’t just show followers their shiny new toys; they “unbox” them, taking viewers through the layers of packaging so they get to vicariously live the full emotional experience of having just bought something new.
Packaging designers have to thread this needle, giving people both what they insist they want and what their actions indicate they actually want. For some companies, this means figuring out how to make packaging sustainable; for others, it means making their stuff look that way. Any company can adopt the aesthetic signifiers of sustainability (think earth tones and clean design).
Brands that don’t care about waste are free to use the same colors and fonts as the companies that do.... Consumerism is how Americans construct their identities, express their opinions, and mediate the drudgery of everyday life.
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/12/unboxing-packaging-shopping-delight/620523/ The Package Is the Message
Are our homes made of plastic too?
To a large extent, yes. As the Healthy Building Network describes, “Our plastic buildings are driving the growth in fossil fuels at the same time as we are diligently working to incorporate clean energy solutions and decarbonize these very same places.”
There has been a marked increase in the use of polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene, polyethylene, polyurethanes, and other plastics in building and construction materials. Examples of components made from plastics and other petrochemicals include countertops, most of our carpets, vinyl siding, vinyl flooring, latex-based paints and sealants, PVC and PEX water pipes, and – critically important – our home insulation.
The fact that we surround ourselves in polyurethane, laminate, polyester, and other fossil fuel plastic materials is a primary reason that our homes are so much more flammable than they used to be. Here is an excerpt from the National Association of Realtors: “Construction experts say that homes and buildings are at greater risk because more materials in the building of homes and furniture are more flammable than they used to be. The widespread use of synthetic materials is increasing the risk, they say.
Today, people have just three minutes to escape a home fire, according to UL, a safety certification company. About 40 years ago, homeowners had about 17 minutes to escape from a similar fire.”
The climate impacts from our petrochemical-dense housing are considerable. Beyond Plastics describes how petrochemicals in spray polyurethane foam create plastic envelopes around buildings. These chemicals off-gas vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
“Fluorochemical gases in plastic insulation help to trap heat inside buildings. The same gases, when released, trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere. About one-quarter (25%) of fluorochemical gases inside plastic insulation migrate into the air within the first year of installation, and continue to off-gas for at least 50 years. The blowing agents used in foamed plastic insulation are emitted from buildings in which it is installed and landfills where the foamed plastic insulation is dumped. Those that remain in the walls of housing stock will continue to linger and leak for decades.
This report's estimate of 27 million metric tons of CO2e releases from insulation in the US likely is a substantial underestimate. According to a United Nations technical committee report, banning the use of fluorocarbons from foam insulation would avoid ‘over 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalents.’ “
How much plastic do we eat?
Studies suggest that each of us eats the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic every week. Tiny microplastic particles (less than five millimeters, or 0.2 inches, in diameter) contaminate drinking water supplies, packaged food, and even “fresh food” that has not yet been wrapped in plastic.
Like the larger plastics from which they disintegrate, microplastics are made up of chemicals that can cause cancer and heart disease, interfere with metabolism, harm reproductive organs and fetal development, and make hormones go haywire, among other effects. The chemicals can leach out of the plastic and into our bodies and our surroundings.
Plastic packaging materials (and the resulting microplastics) are made from a range of plastics chemicals. Examples include:
- Phthalates (the extraordinarily potent, ubiquitous endocrine-disruptor, DEHP, can make up as much as 40 percent of some plastics, by weight, but it is not chemically bound to the plastic, thus migrating into the air, food, and surrounding liquids),
- UV stabilizers (the super-toxic and persistent UV328 is found in breast milk and even contaminates the Arctic),
- Bisphenol A (affecting the brain, the prostate, and everything in between),
- Flame retardants (causing neurological damage and cancers),
- PFAS (which is extremely harmful even in tiny amounts, damaging the kidneys, reproduction, the immune system, etc.)
and other hazardous chemicals. Of the 10,000 chemicals added to plastic, over 2,400 meet one or more criteria for persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity. EPA allows 667 of these chemicals of concern for use in food-contact plastics alone, and many more in cosmetics and other consumer uses. These chemicals can leach out of the plastics and into our bodies.
Researchers suggest that the average American may consume between 39,000 and 52,000 particles of microplastics from food alone per year. When inhalation of microplastics from non-food sources is considered, those numbers are even higher: between 74,000 and 121,000 particles per person per year. Those who drink only bottled sources for their recommended daily water intake may be ingesting an additional 90,000 microplastic particles annually.
Plastics can disintegrate into tiny microplastic particles which we then ingest. Packaged foods can also be contaminated by microplastics during the production stage. Some chemicals migrate directly from plastic packaging into our food and drink. Another route of ingestion is through the plastic polymers, plasticizers, surfactants, colorants, and other coatings on some pills and pharmaceuticals. Even when food is not packaged or encased in plastic, we are consuming the plastic particles that make their way up the marine and terrestrial food chains.
The dense microplastic pollution in the oceans comes from a range of sources including dumping vast quantities of plastic packaging into the oceans where it breaks down into fragments; washing clothes and other synthetic (plastic) textiles; using plastic micro-beads in cosmetics; and driving on synthetic “rubber” tires that wear down on the roadways. In the oceans, these tiny fragments of plastic are consumed by miniature organisms such as zooplankton, fish larvae, as well as “filter feeders” such as oysters and scallops. Such organisms become food sources for many larger animals such as the fish that humans consume.
In the terrestrial environment, microplastic pollution results from many of the same sources including plastics production, plastics recycling, landfilling, sewage treatment plants, roadway tires and other debris, and agricultural applications of all sorts [see the next section]. Some of the microplastics are consumed by earthworms, insects, and other organisms. Some are taken up by plants, with higher concentrations in root vegetables such as carrots, radishes, and turnips. As in aquatic ecosystems, the plastics can travel up the food chain and ultimately end up on our dinner plates.
Human Consumption of Microplastics
How pervasive are plastics and petrochemicals in farming?
Agriculture has become heavily saturated in plastics and other petrochemicals. This may not be obvious to all, given the bucolic farm fields we imagine when strolling down the produce aisle at the supermarket. But out of sight from most consumers, the petrochemical industry has transformed the agricultural system over the past half century.
Plastics and other petrochemicals are used in agriculture on a grand scale. As of 2019, global agriculture was using approximately 13.8 million tons of plastic in its plant and animal production activities, in addition to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. Some researchers warn that there may be even more micro-plastic pollution in the soil than in the oceans, due in part to the intentional application of microplastic rich sewage sludge on agricultural lands. The fact that petrochemicals and plastics in farming have become this pervasive is raising red flags for sustainability.
Among the many pesticides made from oil and gas are the world’s most-used insecticides, called neonicotinoids, the world’s most-used herbicide (weed-killer), called glyphosate, and the world’s most legendary organochlorine pesticide, DDT.
Not only are the pesticides, fertilizers, and other agricultural chemicals made from petrochemicals, but they are coated with plastic polymers. Plastic mulch films have become standard as well, placed on the soil surface to retain moisture and prevent weed growth. When the mulching films are removed at the end of the growing season (to be landfilled or burned), they leave in the soil a residual layer of microplastics (tiny plastic particles that result from the breakdown of larger plastics) and leached chemical additives such as phthalates, which are plastics softeners known for their endocrine and reproductive effects. Newer “biodegradable” plastic films are literally churned into the soil after use.
The vast majority of agricultural plastics products are single use. There is almost zero recordkeeping of their disposal but ample evidence that most are burned, buried or landfilled. Despite manufacturing much of the plastic used in agriculture, Dow, BASF, and other companies do not take responsibility for its disposal.
We also dump microplastic-rich sewage sludge on farmland. In the US and Europe, about half of sewage sludge (the solids that are filtered out by municipal wastewater treatment facilities) is applied to crops as an economic way to get rid of it. The sewage sludge adds nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil, but it also adds PFAS, heavy metals, antibiotics, and other contaminants. It is dense with microplastics from our roads, tires, laundry, artificial turf and other sources. In 2020, researchers estimated that approximately 21,249 metric tons of microplastics are dumped on US agricultural fields from sewage sludge each year.
Some localities have banned the practice of dumping sewage sludge on farmlands. The Netherlands has banned the practice since 1995. Initially they incinerated the sludge instead, but then they started shipping it to the UK for use on England farms. Switzerland prohibited the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer starting in 2003. Maine banned the practice in April 2022 due to PFAS contamination.
The repercussions of all these petrochemicals are extensive. As discussed in the climate section, microplastics in soil continue to emit greenhouse gases. Meanwhile they reduce agricultural yields and harm earthworms, which play a vital role in soil health. Some researchers have suggested an 8 to 25 percent mortality rate for earthworms depending on the concentration of microplastics. The toxic chemicals in plastics and other petrochemicals, including phthalates and bisphenols with endocrine disrupting properties, may bioaccumulate in wildlife and bio-magnify up food chains, ultimately contaminating the products that humans eat.
Microplastics have been found in lettuce, carrots, broccoli, potatoes, apples, pears, honey, beer, seafood, meat, and milk products, among other things. Many other categories such as meats have not been tested. Initial findings suggest they may be more concentrated in perennial crops (e.g., apples) than in products like lettuce. Recent studies have found micro-plastics in human feces and placentas, as well as in malignant lung tissues. More research is needed, but there is growing evidence that agricultural plastics pose a threat to human health and to ecosystems.
An Environmental Health News report warns that the chemicals found in plastic are anything but inert. “Microplastics are chemically active materials, capable of attracting and binding to compounds known to harm human health. In addition to cadmium, microplastics have been shown to accumulate lead, PCBs, and pesticides. Further, plastics are manufactured with their own suite of toxic compounds, which can include BPA, an endocrine disruptor. Researchers have suggested that both acquired and endogenous compounds could leach out of degrading plastics into their environment, whether that be soil or human tissue.”
A 160-page United Nations report paints a profile of an agricultural system that is literally drenched in petrochemicals at every turn. The Food and Agriculture Organization calls the impacts “disastrous.” The report assesses alternatives that can deliver similar advantages. https://www.fao.org/3/cb7856en/cb7856en.pdf
Assessment of Agricultural Plastics and their Sustainability: A Call for Action (2021).
Of the dozens of agricultural uses included in the United Nations report, the FAO highlights agricultural mulch films and polymer coated fertilizers as the most dangerous and consequential.
Polymer coated fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds take many different forms. Essentially, they are tablets, granules or seeds that are coated with a conventional plastic or a “biodegradable” plastic, or sometimes a plant-based fiber such as cellulose. They release the fertilizer or insecticide over time. Unfortunately, as these products degrade they become vast amounts of microplastics in the soils and surrounding waterways.
In the European Union, the intentional releases of microplastics from polymer coated fertilizers is estimated at 22,500 tonnes/year, or 62 percent of all intentionally released microplastics, according to the European Chemicals Agency. Coated seeds and coated pesticide formulations each released an additional 500 tonnes/year, approximately.
Some researchers have suggested that the biodegradable-plastic versions of slow-release coatings appear more sustainable than the conventional plastic coatings. There is minimal research into the extent to which these plastics actually degrade, and the nutrient effects on soil ecosystems. The Food and Agriculture Organization is recommending that growers transition to the biodegradable versions, but there remain serious questions about the consequences of either option.
Agricultural mulch films
Agricultural plastic mulch films are widely used in farming to reduce weed pressures, conserve moisture, and modify soil temperatures. It has become standard in many agricultural contexts to cover the soil with low density polyethylene films and then to remove the films at the end of the growing season. Researchers have found, however, that the films contaminate the soil with chemical additives and plasticizing agents, and leave behind a residual layer of plastic and leachate in the topsoil. The films also affect the soil microclimates, soil microbial communities, and plant growth and development, and they contribute to the massive worldwide plastic pollution and global heating.
In recent years many farmers have switched to biodegradable plastic mulches, which are tilled into the soil after use. Biodegradable plastics can be made from microbes or plants, from fossil-fuel polyesters, or from a combination. Some researchers have suggested that these mulches inhibit plant growth and others have found that the plastic does not fully decompose. Upon soil incorporation, these mulches add physical fragments of plastic to the soil, including the carbon, additives, and adherent chemicals, with effects on the soil microclimate and soil microorganisms.
In addition, there is a whole industry promoting “rubber mulch” – the ground-up synthetic tire material that has become standard as the surface for children’s playgrounds and sports fields. Rubber mulch is used in landscaping and gardening as an alternative to natural mulches such as hay and woodchips. It is advertised as ecologically sound since it helps find a home for expended tires.
Some experts have proposed restrictions on intentionally introduced plastic materials in farming, such as the sewage sludge, plastic mulches, and plastic slow-release coatings on pesticides, seeds, and fertilizers.
On a positive note, researchers at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania are growing nutrient- sequestering cover crops, which they roll into a thick mat. Growers plant their seeds directly into the mat, which serves to inhibit weeds, conserve dampness while letting water through, and add nutrients to the soil. Rodale states that this technique can be scaled for use on large farms. https://rodaleinstitute.org/science/articles/beyond-black-plastic/
Overview of plastics in terrestrial environments:
Microplastics as an emerging threat:
2021 FAO Assessment of agricultural plastics and their sustainability: A call for action:
Frontiers in Microbiology (2018)
Biodegradable Plastic Mulch Films: Impacts on Soil Microbial Communities and Ecosystem Functions https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0048969720347574
The Dangers of Living Near Petrochemical Infrastructure
Is it dangerous to live near a petrochemical facility?
Yes. Communities in the vicinity of petrochemical facilities face high concentrations of hazardous air and water pollutants, including extremely toxic chemicals such as ethylene oxide, formaldehyde, chloroprene, benzene, vinyl chloride, and trichloroethylene.
Researchers have found elevated cancer risks as well as adverse respiratory and reproductive outcomes among those who work in or live near petrochemical production facilities. Infants and children may be especially vulnerable since they breathe more and drink more (for their size), live closer to the ground (where many pollutants concentrate), and have sensitive, rapidly developing organ systems.
In addition to the long-term exposures, workers and residents face daily risk of leaks, explosions, fires, and other catastrophic events. The stench, noise, and eyesore dramatically reduce quality of life as well as property values.
Some communities host multiple plastics-making facilities, subjecting residents to cumulative pollution threats. The Lake Charles area in Louisiana, for example, has several dozen extreme-risk industrial facilities located within 10 miles of each other, putting local people in multiple overlapping chemical-release vulnerability zones.
Another horrific example is the St. John the Baptist parish in Louisiana, the epicenter for the nation’s most toxic air pollution. This is a hub for the production of petrochemicals used in tires, wetsuits, and other products, and the area is now constructing a plastics incineration facility as well. Emissions from the Denka synthetic rubber factory (formerly, Dupont) elevate local cancer risks to more than 1,500 excess cases per million – far higher than EPA’s “acceptable” cancer standard of 100 extra cases per million residents, and vastly much higher than EPA’s prior standard of 1 extra cancer case per million.
At the regional level, Louisiana’s Cancer Alley has the nation’s highest concentration of carcinogenic air pollutants. The second worst is the area around Port Arthur, Texas, on the Louisiana border. And the third most significant hotspot is the greater Houston area.
The premier air-toxics cancer risk map:
What do the studies find?
Multiple studies confirm elevated rates of cancers and other illnesses affecting those who live or work in the vicinity of petrochemical facilities. The toxic emissions from these facilities can cause everything from headaches and nausea to heart disease; cancers (kidney, respiratory, blood, reproductive, digestive); and other illnesses. Workers are at especially high risk, as are infants and children growing up in these neighborhoods.
Here is a closer look at some of the studies on petrochemical pollution and health.
(2018) Environment International
Risks and burden of lung cancer incidence for residential petrochemical industrial complexes: A meta-analysis and application
This meta-analysis examines lung cancer incidence near petrochemical industrial complexes in six countries: US, Ecuador, Sweden, Israel, Italy, and Serbia. The assessment was based on published studies (mostly longitudinal cohort studies rather than retrospective case-control studies) that allowed at least 11 years’ latency period between the initial operation of the plant and the start of the study. The researchers used a random-effects model to assess the risk of lung cancer among those residing near the plants. Studies with the narrowest confidence intervals (especially research from Augusta, Italy) were weighted more heavily than those with wider intervals of confidence. The analysis took into account both the community-wide emissions and the occupational co-exposure. More than 466,000 residents living near petrochemical industrial complexes were included in the analysis.
The researchers found that those living in the vicinity of petrochemical facilities had a 19 percent higher risk of lung cancer compared with those living at greater distance. The risk of lung cancer was higher and more significant for females. Facilities processing VOCs, PAHs including BAP [Benzo[a]pyrene], heavy metals, and PCBs were associated with significant higher risk of lung cancer. Benzene was also found to elevate risk, though not to a statistically significant level. In 22 European Union countries, the study found that lung cancer cases in 494 males and 478 females were attributable to petrochemical facility emissions each year, with the highest numbers in Germany and Spain.
The above assessment is a follow-up to an older meta-analysis by the same authors that looks at lung cancer mortality near petrochemical facilities. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s12940-017-0309-2
(2017) Environmental Health
It appears that mortality may be a less useful measure of effect (rather than focusing on disease incidence) since the results are affected by the quality of treatment. The researchers were not able to fully account for several confounding factors. This analysis included over two million people living near petrochemical facilities and found only a slight increase in lung cancer mortality.
(2020) Environmental Health
A systematic review and meta-analysis of haematological malignancies in residents living near petrochemical facilities
This is another systemic review and meta-analysis of epidemiological studies examining health impacts of mutagenic and carcinogenic air emissions from petrochemical facilities. The study focused on hematological malignancies among 187,585 residents living near such industries. The researchers found that those living in fenceline communities within 3.1 miles of the petrochemical plants face a 30 percent higher risk of developing leukemia. The relationship with more rare hematological malignancies remains uncertain given the inadequate numbers in the review.
(2020) Environmental Research
Health risks for the population living near petrochemical industrial complexes. 1. Cancer risks: A review of the scientific literature
This 2020 literature review by researchers in Catalonia, Spain, examines cancer risks for populations living near petrochemical plants, including oil refineries. The researchers note that several of the environmental emissions from the facilities are known carcinogens, for example arsenic, cadmium, certain volatile organic compounds like benzene or 1,3-butadiene and some PAHs. The literature searches identified 23 investigations in the PubMed and Scopus databases. The studies from Taiwan, Spain, United Kingdom, Italy and Nigeria reported excess leukemia and other hematological malignancies (including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma) near petrochemical facilities. Four studies from Sweden, Finland and the US did not find an association. Studies from Taiwan, Italy and the US found a high incidence of lung and bladder cancer. In Taiwan, Spain, Italy, United Kingdom and the US, researchers reported an excess mortality from bone, brain, liver, pleural, larynx and pancreatic cancers.
(2020) Science of the Total Environment
Health risks for the population living near petrochemical industrial complexes. 2. Adverse health outcomes other than cancer
The same team from Catalonia, Spain conducted a separate literature review of non-cancer endpoints, again evaluating research reported in the PubMed and Scopus databases. Studies of air in the vicinity of petrochemical plants commonly detect such air pollutants as sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and dioxide, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and various metals. Most studies identified by the researchers found a higher prevalence of asthma and respiratory illnesses among populations living near petrochemical facilities, in addition to adverse effects on pregnancy and reproductive outcomes.
(2022) Environmental Research
Proximity to petrochemical industrial parks and risk of chronic glomerulonephritis
A case-control study from Taiwan looked at renal health near petrochemical facilities. Chronic kidney conditions have a high fatality rate, and Taiwan has the world’s highest incidence and prevalence of end-stage renal disease. The authors note that previous studies from around the world have indicated that exposure to industrial pollution adversely affects the glomerular filtration rate, albuminuria, and serum uric acid concentration, and that such pollution exposures are associated with increased risk of chronic kidney disease. This study broadened the possible endpoints by looking at a different kidney disease.
This study examined whether living near petrochemicals is associated with chronic glomerulonephritis, which is inflammation and damage of the part of the kidneys that filters waste and excess fluids out of the bloodstream and pass them into the urine. The study included nearly 321,000 subjects in the final analysis. The researchers adjusted for potential confounders and determined that living within a 3 km (1.86 mi) radius of petrochemical plants is associated with a higher risk of glomerulonephritis. Communities 10 km (6.2 mi) away had significantly more illness than those 20 km away, with the level of risk dependent on the dose. Prevailing winds made a substantial difference in exposure and outcome. The researchers emphasized the importance of monitoring industrial nephrotoxic substances near petrochemical complexes and the resulting impacts on renal health.
(2008) Environmental Health Perspectives
Childhood Lymphohematopoietic Cancer Incidence and Hazardous Air Pollutants in Southeast Texas, 1995–2004
This study by the University of Texas School of Public Health evaluated 977 cases of childhood lymphohematopoietic cancer diagnosed from 1995–2004 in 886 census tracts around Houston, Texas. The study focuses in particular on Harris County, home of the Houston Ship Channel and multiple petroleum and chemical industries.
The researchers used EPA modeled estimates for benzene and for 1,3-butadiene emitted from local petrochemical complexes. For both contaminants, the census tracts with the highest pollutant levels had the most elevated rates of childhood leukemia, including both acute myeloid leukemia and acute lymphocytic leukemia. The study also suggested that children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel (part of the Port of Houston, one of the busiest seaports in the world) had a 56 percent higher risk of contracting acute lymphocytic leukemia than children living more than 10 miles from the channel. Only the results for benzene were statistically significant, and the researchers note that “Given the overwhelming evidence of the carcinogenic potential of benzene, we therefore cannot exclude the possibility that the associations we observed between childhood cancer and 1,3-butadiene were actually attributable to benzene, and more research is needed to elucidate the cancer risks arising from complex air pollutant mixtures.”
What about fires, explosions, and other petrochemical disasters?
In addition to the elevated risk of cancers and other illnesses from daily emissions, many communities face the constant threat of petrochemical leaks, fires, explosions, and other potentially catastrophic events. A lot of fossil fuels and petrochemical materials are highly flammable, corrosive, explosive, and toxic, especially when they are under intense heat, cold, or pressure. Communities in the vicinity of oil and gas development, rail lines, pipelines, trucking routes, compressor stations, power plants, processing plants, fractionation facilities, liquefaction plants, incinerators, and other petrochemical infrastructure live with the ongoing threat of chemical explosions, fires, or other unplanned releases.
Some families keep emergency evacuation backpacks (filled with goggles, first aid kits, clothes, cash, and other items) by the front door in case they are forced to flee their homes. Unfortunately, it can be impossible to out-run a toxic chemical explosion, particularly when residents receive no warning. There is no safe level of dioxins and other super-toxic chemicals. Apart from the acute respiratory, cardiac, and other effects, those exposed are condemned to face the rest of their lives in fear of the cancers and other latent effects – and they worry about their children, pets, and farm animals, as well as local wildlife. Infants and children are especially vulnerable. Workers too face extraordinarily high risk.
Moms Clean Air Force has been urging the EPA and other agencies to adopt stronger disaster-prevention and mitigation measures, more robust environmental justice provisions, and increased transparency requirements to safeguard people in the vicinity of petrochemical facilities. We are pressing for the strongest possible protections for the fenceline and environmental justice communities, workers, and first responders most impacted by hazardous and often life-threatening chemical disasters.
Chemical disasters in the US are alarmingly common. EPA states that over the past 10 years, the agency has performed an average of 235 emergency response actions per year, a tally that includes responses to discharges of hazardous chemicals or oil. The severity of these incidents appears to be getting worse. EPA states that people are seeking medical treatment at far higher rates; that the annual number of people evacuated has climbed markedly, and that the numbers of people told to shelter in place are rising.
The Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters has recorded over 30 unplanned chemical releases endangering human and environmental health in just the first seven weeks of 2023, and 188 such incidents in 2022. https://preventchemicaldisasters.org/chemical-facility-incidents/ These included an explosion and fire at the Sasol Petrochemical Plant in Westlake, Louisiana, which resulted in a shelter-in-place order (but the emergency siren did not work and thus failed to notify residents) in October 2022, and a large pipeline rupture in northern Kansas in December, contaminating surrounding lands and waterways with 588,000 gallons of diluted bitumen crude oil (cleanup is ongoing, at a cost of $488 million).
The Texas Petroleum Chemical explosion and fire in Port Neches, Texas, was among the most significant incidents in recent years, involving the evacuation of 50,000 people and $153 million in offsite property damage. Here are a couple of the news reports from that crisis:
Time Magazine video (2019)
Schools Closed in Texas Town As Petrochemicals Facility Fire Rages
The day before Thanksgiving, a blaze at the Texas Petroleum Chemical plant in Port Neches set off two explosions, forcing 50,000 people to evacuate their homes. A week later, authorities issued another evacuation warning after air monitors detected high levels of carcinogenic 1,3 Butadiene.
What caused the 2019 TPC explosion? New report from Chemical Safety Board details 6,000 gallon butadiene leak
“In 50 seconds, about 6,000 gallons of liquid vapor, mostly butadiene, escaped a processing tower at the TPC plant in Port Neches. The explosion was 2 minutes later.”
Among the most horrific of recent chemical disasters took place on February 3, 2023. A Norfolk Southern train carrying vinyl chloride and plastic-making chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, resulting in a chemical fire that burned vinyl chloride, PVC plastic, diethylene glycol, butyl acrylates, and other extremely toxic chemicals. Residents within a one-mile radius were told to evacuate – a zone that was later extended slightly. Three days later, to mitigate the risk of explosion, crews intentionally released and burned the remaining vinyl chloride, sending a giant black plume of hydrogen chloride and the toxic gas phosgene into the air. Five days after the derailment, residents were given the all-clear to return to their homes, but safety concerns are ongoing.
How are fossil fuels and petrochemicals transported?
Transporting flammable, explosive, toxic fossil-materials such as vinyl chloride, benzene, ethylene, ethylene oxide, liquefied natural gas and compressed natural gas presents serious challenges. The primary modes are by truck, rail, pipeline, barge, and ocean liner; each involves significant risks. Here are a few observations.
Norfolk Southern and other “bomb trains”
On February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern trail derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The train was more than 1.7 miles long. It had a crew of only two, plus a trainee. The train was carrying vinyl chloride, benzene, and other carcinogenic, flammable, and explosive contents, but it was not equipped with electronic brakes or other advanced braking technology. Nor was it classified as a “high-hazard flammable train,” or H.H.F.T. Local officials had not been informed of what would be transported through their communities.
The axle of the train caught fire at least twenty miles beforehand but the train did not stop. Ultimately several dozen train cars derailed, and many caught on fire, spilling and burning vinyl chloride and other toxic chemicals. Local firefighters and first responders arrived at the crash site to find 100-foot flames and a strong chemical stench, but they had zero information about the potent carcinogens they were being exposed to. Three days later, crews carried out a so-called “controlled burn” of the remaining vinyl chloride, sending plumes of dioxins and other toxic chemicals into the surrounding communities.
Many residents of East Palestine are already noticing respiratory effects and skin ailments. They are understandably terrified and upset about the ongoing contamination of their air, water, and food. They worry about the latent human health impacts from the toxic chemicals, which have already killed at least 43,000 animals in their area.
Norfolk Southern has declined to divulge where its cargo – the massive quantities of explosive and hazardous plastics-production chemicals -- were heading, but all fingers are pointing to the new Shell cracking facility in Beaver County, which is just a few miles across the border in Pennsylvania.
The Norfolk Southern disaster in East Palestine is one of more than 1000 train car derailments taking place each year. In recent decades the number of derailments of train cars carrying hazardous materials has grown significantly. A recent analysis by USA Today found a 36 percent increase in rail hazmat violations over the last five years.
Norfolk Southern has had other catastrophic crashes. In a 2005 crash in Graniteville, South Carolina, the release of 90 tons of chlorine gas from the derailed train cars resulted in the deaths of nine people and the hospital admissions of more than 500. That was the largest rail disaster of its type since 1978. The Graniteville disaster had minimal impact on the company’s bottom line, and so far the evidence suggests that the East Palestine derailment may be equally inconsequential for Norfolk Southern’s balance sheets.
Rail crashes are largely preventable, but Norfolk Southern and other rail companies have fought against stricter rules for carrying hazardous chemicals and the corresponding safety upgrades that could have averted these disasters. The freight rail industry has spent more than $254 million lobbying the federal government in the last decade, and industry employees and political action committees gave $43.6 million to federal election campaigns in that same period – mostly to Republican lawmakers.
To varying degrees, the Obama, Trump, and Biden Administrations have all caved to industry pressure on rail safety. The federal railroad administration is described as beholden to and captured by the rail industry. In the wake of the E. Palestine disaster, Transportation Secretary Buttigieg has taken up the cause of stricter safety standards, but some see his appearance on the scene as “too little, too late.”
The braking systems on freight trains are still from the Civil War era. Prior efforts to expand safety systems to cover liquefied fossil gas and vinyl chloride have been rejected. Multiple catastrophic hazmat train derailments have taken place in recent years, yet commonsense fixes have been sidelined. Pleas for stricter speed limits, stronger rail cars, better braking systems, improved disclosure to states and to local communities along hazardous shipping routes have been ignored, and safety advocates have been told that the upgrades were cost prohibitive.
Meanwhile, rail company owners have received nearly $200 billion in stock buybacks and dividends. In 2022 alone, Norfolk Southern recorded $4.8 billion in income revenue. And the company has cut corners by reducing their work force by nearly 30 percent, despite the resulting safety and maintenance risks, as part of a so-called “precision scheduled railroading” strategy – thus the barebones two-person crew on the derailed 150-car Norfolk Southern train.
A new type of bomb train for liquefied natural gas
A somewhat distinct type of bomb trains are those pulling tanker cars full of liquefied natural gas, the super-cooled methane (often in combination with ethane) that carries with it the risk of catastrophic explosion. To the horror of transportation regulators and safety advocates, former President Trump pushed through a rule in July 2020 to allow liquefied natural gas transport by rail in a new, untested type of tanker car. This class of rail cars would be based on the DOT-113 rail cars, which have experienced numerous failures while transporting other, less dangerous cargoes.
Earthjustice filed a legal challenge to stop these bomb trains. Here is some basic information from Earthjustice about the risks:
“The liquefied natural gas from just one rail tank car — without even considering a whole train — could be enough to destroy a city.
It would only take 22 tank cars to hold the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima bomb. A train of 110 tank cars filled with liquefied natural gas would have five times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb.
In the event of any loss of containment, liquefied natural gas rapidly expands by six hundred times its volume to become a highly flammable gas — and can turn into a “bomb train.”
Since liquefied natural gas must be contained in a pressurized and temperature-controlled storage unit, it can also produce a BLEVE — “boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion.”
During a BLEVE, pressurized liquid ‘explodes’ both chemically and physically (simultaneously vaporizing and combusting). A BLEVE creates three primary dangers:
- A blast wave,
- Flying shrapnel from the broken container, and
- In the case of flammable vapors, a fireball.”
President Biden’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration released a proposal in November 2021 that would halt LNG transport by rail. The office received over 7,000 comment letters on the proposal, including a letter from 15 attorneys general in support of reversing the Trump rule, and a letter from 20 Republican members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee protesting the proposed suspension of the Trump Rule. A final rule is expected by June 2024.
Transporting fossil fuels and petrochemicals by ship
Petrochemical shipping includes everything from the barges piled high with waste plastic in Brooklyn, making their way along the East River to Staten Island (and then by rail to an incinerator) to the giant chemical tankers that carry highly corrosive and explosive petrochemical materials across oceans in specially reinforced and coated cargo tanks.
Given the importance of liquefied natural gas in current discussions of energy and petrochemical infrastructure, this section will focus on the vast buildout of liquefaction and export terminals (in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland and Massachusetts) and the giant LNG tanker ships they service.
In 2022, the US became the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas. The buildout of LNG infrastructure is growing at a fast clip, with new facilities underway along the Gulf Coast and at sites from Alaska to New Jersey. This is the same explosive hazardous material that puts communities in danger from the LNG bomb trains described above.
Unlike LNG trains, the ocean tankers that transport LNG employ a clever trick:
“The product is loaded onto the ship at its condensation point of -259 degrees Fahrenheit. As the storage container absorbs heat from the outside air, that energy goes toward converting small amounts of the LNG back into its gaseous form. The re-gasified molecules are directed out of the storage container and into the ship’s engines, where they power the ship. Most of the LNG, however, remains in its liquid state until it reaches its destination, where it is re-gasified and transported through pipelines….”
In the US, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission oversees applications to build pipelines and liquefaction terminals, while the US Department of Energy review applications for LNG export. Some observers call this a “check the box” exercise.
While the ocean transport of liquefied natural gas by tanker benefits from certain engineering advantages, this tanker transport is intimately intertwined with every other stage in the vastly polluting and dangerous fossil gas value chain. It is impossible to separate the LNG shipping from the oil and gas fracking, the processing and liquefaction, the transport on “virtual pipeline” CNG bomb trucks and LNG bomb trains, the pipelines, the further processing into fuel and plastics, and the ultimate transport into our homes, as a polluting gas or as a leaching plastic that gets incinerated or turns into microplastics. Every step involves the emission of toxic and planet heating gases. The LNG buildout is a critical piece of the puzzle. By advancing these massive LNG infrastructure projects, we are locking in our fossil fuel dependence for decades to come.
There is more to learn about the ocean vessels that carry fossil fuels and petrochemicals, and perhaps a future version of this Q&A will delve into greater detail.
“Bomb trucks” and other so-called virtual pipelines
Every stage of the petrochemical value chain involves vast numbers of trucks, from the initial oil and gas development to the diesel garbage trucks that average 1 to 2 MPG while picking up our waste plastic and other trash. Truck transport is very flexible in terms of timing and possible destinations. It is also highly polluting and often dangerous. Truck traffic releases large amounts of nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter, heating the atmosphere and contributing to respiratory, cardiovascular and other health harms (as well as road safety risks) in local communities. Human error and mechanical failures sometimes result in high-impact and highly consequential crashes.
Some trucks carry toxic and explosive fossil materials for relatively short distances, for example between the extraction site or refinery and the rail or shipping terminals. Trucks are also used for longer distances where other means such as rail or pipelines are not available.
Particularly concerning is the practice of transporting hazardous materials using so-called “virtual pipelines.” These are off-pipeline networks of trucks, trains, and barges that move compressed natural gas and other explosive substances, often through remote, rugged or highly populated terrain. Essentially these “virtual pipelines” offer a workaround for natural gas companies eager to expand into regions not yet connected to the natural gas distribution system. These are areas where the pipeline network is not developed, either because of market size and profit margins or geography or public opposition.
Virtual pipelines are a solution for gas companies in states such as New York that have restricted natural gas fracking and new pipeline developments. They expand the demand and infrastructure for natural gas in regions that currently rely on other energy sources. Convoys of these heavily polluting diesel trucks take their explosive cargo from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shales to central New York State, and also throughout New England. The fracked gas travels by road, with some trucks (or caravans) making more than 100 trips a day through towns and cities dense with schools, hospitals, day cares, and homes.
Typically, the gas carried by virtual pipeline trucks comes from compressor stations that are fed by pipelines. The compressors compact the gas under extremely high pressure – 3600 pounds per square inch – which can lead to powerful explosions and serious injuries. These trucks are identifiable by the hazard class 2.1 placard they carry: 1971. (The placard number indicates that they are carrying flammable, compressed natural gas or methane.) Companies apply for special permits from the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to carry these cylinders. They are not currently subject to environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
The “virtual pipeline” trucking networks have a dubious safety record. The heat of truck brakes and exhaust systems can exceed 1000 degrees F, risking ignition if there is a leak or a crash. There have been a number of collisions, leaks, and rollover events involving virtual pipeline trucks in recent years.
Some observers suggest that the safety and environmental risks from truck transport may be more detrimental than those from pipelines. The trucks, trains, and ships that are part of the “virtual pipeline” emit ground-level air pollution, burn diesel fuel, and present high risk of spills and explosions in populated areas.
The Vermont Journal of Environmental Law sums up the current situation:
“Looking ahead, a move to virtual pipelines may accelerate under the new Biden Administration as oil and gas companies seek new forms of transportation that avoid environmental review. Although president-elect Biden will seek to expand the renewable energy market in all 50 states, he campaigned on a promise that he will not ban fracking. If the Biden Administration opposes traditional pipelines, like the Obama Administration, then oil and gas companies will simply pivot to road and rail distributions.
To mitigate this shift to virtual pipelines, federal and state governments must incentivize renewable energy to levels that upset the status quo and reverse the Trump Administration’s environmental rollbacks. Otherwise, oil and gas companies will continue building fossil fuel infrastructure through virtual pipelines that avoid environmental review and present serious risks to public health, safety, and the environment. The pipeline wars have made significant strides in the battle against fossil fuels by blocking what will hopefully be obsolete energy infrastructure, but without federal leadership and policies that incentivize renewable energy the benefits of those fights are not fully realized.”
Transporting fossil fuels and petrochemicals feedstocks by pipeline
There are roughly 3 million miles of pipelines in the US These transport everything from crude oil to fracked natural gas to ethane. Most of these gases and hazardous liquids are highly combustible and climate heating. The pipelines themselves are normally made of steel or plastic. Depending on use, pipelines can be anywhere from a few inches to roughly four feet in diameter. Pipelines transport the materials from wellheads to crackers and other processing facilities and ultimately to our homes.
FracTracker Alliance has created an interactive map integrating information from six different datasets of pipeline incidents that were reported to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). As the researchers found, incidents self-reported to PHMSA may significantly under-report the extent of the evacuations and hospitalizations.
Their analysis found that in the 4,767 days between the January 1, 2010 and January 19, 2023, a total of 8,140 pipeline incidents were reported to PHMSA, an average of 1.7 incidents per day. This includes 1,135 fires (one every 4.2 days) and 392 explosions (one every 12.2 days). These incidents involved a total of 164 fatalities (one every 29 days), 737 injuries (one every 6.5 days), and 46,463 evacuees (9.7 per day). The property damage for this period totals over $7.57 billion. In other words, on the average day in the US in the last 13 years, there was $1,588,588 worth of property damage (including lost product) due to pipeline incidents. Pipelines are also dangerous for the workers constructing them, with fatality rates several times higher than those for other industries.
The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 includes large subsidies for development of hydrogen and carbon capture, unproven technologies which raise significant concerns for the health and safety of fenceline communities and for the planet. The funds may subsidize the development of thousands of miles of additional pipelines to carry hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide pipelines have a poor safety record, including an incident in Yazoo, Mississippi in 2020 which sent 45 people to the hospital, some of them “foaming at the mouth.” As for transporting hydrogen by pipeline, the Department of Energy acknowledges that hydrogen is prone to leaks due to the small molecule size and because it embrittles steel and metal welds in pipeline infrastructure. The DOE is considering using glass-reinforced plastic pipes (so-called fiberglass), a bonus for the petrochemical industry.
How did petrochemical companies evade monitoring, inspections, and repairs during the pandemic?
Many frontline communities have long had to endure the lax commitment to health and safety and the minimal operational transparency of petrochemical companies in their neighborhoods.
The situation got worse for these residents during the Covid19 pandemic. In March 2020, President Trump’s EPA and state governments pulled back on monitoring for toxic air pollutants at the behest of the oil and gas industry. Companies claimed that lockdowns and social distancing made it difficult to comply with environmental monitoring, inspections and repairs. A two-month Associated Press investigation of pollution-control authorities in all 50 states found that the vast majority of the company requests – more than 3000 – were granted.
Missed inspections for leaks can endanger workers and communities and can add hundreds or thousands of tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
The AP report states, “Oil and gas companies received a green light to skip dozens of scheduled tests and inspections critical for ensuring safe operations, such as temporarily halting or delaying tests for leaks or checking on tank seals, flare stacks, emissions monitoring systems or engine performance, which could raise the risk of explosions.”
Many oil, gas and petrochemical companies asked to suspend monitoring. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, for example, received over 150 requests to waive environmental regulations during the first four months of the pandemic alone. About 40 percent of the requests came from facilities in the Houston area, with Phillips 66 and Enterprise Products Partners submitting the largest number of petitions. Some of the company names and locations were kept secret due to the Texas Public Information Act, but the list includes ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, Shell and others. Texas granted dozens of the requests, allowing companies to suspend monitoring for leaks of benzene and other contaminants. Such leaks (from valves, pumps, connectors, etc.) are the biggest source of volatile organic compound emissions at petrochemical facilities.
It is worth noting that a lot of leak monitoring takes place outdoors, in isolation, and while wearing PPE – hardhats, goggles, masks and earplugs – so in most situations there is no reason to discontinue monitoring during a pandemic. This data was lost forever, endangering communities and setting back repairs that could have saved lives and that would have been far easier to fix right away.
Where in the US does petrochemical manufacturing take place?
The US has extensive petrochemical infrastructure in every state, as can be seen on the national energy map from FracTracker.
The petrochemical build-out includes, among other things, fracking facilities, refineries, pipelines, ethane “cracking” plants, processing facilities, rail terminals, ports, storage facilities, liquefaction plants, and plastics incinerators.
Most of the nation’s petrochemical facilities are situated in the poorest and most powerless communities -- partly a result of racial discrimination in housing and financial services; partly due to the designation of low-wealth Black and Latinx neighborhoods as mixed residential-industrial zones; and partly because these historically disenfranchised communities have limited resources with which to defend themselves.
Roughly 95 percent of petrochemical production takes place in Texas and Louisiana, inflicting massive public health burdens on Gulf Coast communities. US and foreign petrochemical companies flock to these states due to the ready access to major shipping routes, cheap land for large facilities, history of environmental racism and multitude of “sacrifice zones,” generous corporate subsidies and lax state regulations -- often pre-empting local safety precautions. These areas are located next to some of the country’s most abundant shale reserves.
A relatively new and growing petrochemical hub is the Ohio River Valley, which includes parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana and Kentucky. These states are rich in coal, oil, and gas, resources, and for decades have had a high concentration of chemical companies producing explosives, antifreeze, solvents, pesticides, PFAS, and other chemical products. In November 2022, the Royal Dutch Shell Company’s six-billion-dollar Pennsylvania Petrochemical Complex commenced operations in Beaver County, northwest of Pittsburgh. This is the first ethane cracker plastics production facility built outside of the Gulf Coast in 20 years.
Developing this more northern, inland petrochemical infrastructure is considered strategic from the standpoint of national energy security. Hurricanes, tornados, fires, floods, droughts and other “extreme weather events” are gaining in intensity and becoming more frequent as the planet heats up. Texas, Louisiana and neighboring states are particularly vulnerable to the most extreme hurricanes (categories 4 and 5). The concentration of petrochemical capacity in the southeast states leaves the US fossil fuel sector vulnerable to these climate disasters. In 2021, for example, the Atlantic Hurricane Season included 21 named storms and four major hurricanes including Hurricane Ida (category 4), the fifth costliest storm since 1980. At least nine Gulf Coast refineries shut down or reduced production. Given Appalachia’s lower risk from climate disasters, extensive shale reserves, and history of heavy industry, the Department of Energy has been eager to turn this region into a second petrochemical hub.
Plastics production capacity is expanding. 2022 was the industry’s biggest year on record for the construction of new ethane cracker plastics-making facilities in the US The Oil and Gas Watch – an initiative of the Environmental Integrity Project – has been tracking proposed new and expanding oil, gas, and petrochemical infrastructure projects. They have identified 402 projects built over the last decade, and an additional 427 oil, gas, and petrochemical infrastructure projects that are in-the-works but have not yet been constructed.
The Plastics Pipeline: A Surge of New Production Is on the Way
Which census tracts face the greatest danger from toxic air pollution?
Using the latest EPA data (based on the 2018 publication of the 2014 Air Toxics Assessment), the chart below identifies the 109 census tracts in which the likelihood of getting cancer is higher than EPA’s upper limit of acceptable risk (100 per million people, meaning 1 in 10,000 people... a risk level that many argue is far too high, in itself). Dow Chemical is responsible for the largest share of the toxic air.
A review by The Intercept found that 91 percent of this excess cancer risk is caused by three chemicals released by the petrochemical industry: chloroprene, ethylene oxide, and formaldehyde. Without these three pollutants, only one census tract in the entire US (near Pittsburgh) would have a cancer risk from air pollution above the 100-in-a-million threshold.
In other words, EPA could save many lives if it were to set binding limits on these three chemicals. But that has not happened.
While St. John the Baptist parish in Louisiana stands out for its staggering level of risk, even the communities on the bottom end of this list face dangerously high cancer risk from industrial chemicals. [Note that this is by census tract, which is why some communities are listed more than once.]
Here is a link to the census tract at the very top of the list, the portion of St. John the Baptist (alongside Reserve, Louisiana, to the north-west of New Orleans) that includes the Denka plant. This factory releases chloroprene and other toxic chemicals in the manufacture of synthetic rubber. The area is 91 percent Black, and 81 percent of the children live in poverty. https://censusreporter.org/profiles/14000US22095070800-census-tract-708-st-john-the-baptist-la/
The second highest risk is found in a census tract in St. Charles Parish, to the west of New Orleans and adjacent to St. John the Baptist Parish, where the Union Carbide plant releases large quantities of ethylene oxide. This area has a different demographic profile: majority white with six percent of children living below the poverty line.
As the US builds more and more petrochemical production and incineration facilities, we are creating whole new regions of elevated cancer risk. The influx of fracking wells and plastics manufacturing facilities in the Ohio River Valley, for example, is contributing to large swaths of VOCs and other toxic air pollutants in the census tracts of Southwest Pennsylvania and surrounding areas.
What is a sacrifice zone?
Plastics production and disposal facilities are most often concentrated in the lowest wealth, least-white neighborhoods, sometimes referred to as “sacrifice zones.”
This paragraph from ProPublica describes some of the patterns: “Our findings build on decades of evidence demonstrating that pollution is segregated: People of color are exposed to far greater levels of air pollution than whites — a pattern that persists across income levels. These disparities are rooted in racist real estate practices like redlining and the designation of low-income neighborhoods and communities of color as mixed residential-industrial zones. In cities like Houston, for example, all-white zoning boards targeted Black neighborhoods for the siting of noxious facilities, like landfills, incinerators and garbage dumps. Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, has called the practice ‘PIBBY’ or ‘Place In Blacks’ Back Yard.’ “
A 2018 study funded by EPA confirms that race carries more weight than class in the siting of industrial facilities. In other words, the disparate burden is more racist than classist, although both variables are important. “Disparities in burden from PM-emitting facilities exist at multiple geographic scales. Disparities for Blacks are more pronounced than are disparities on the basis of poverty status. Strictly socioeconomic considerations may be insufficient to reduce PM burdens equitably across populations.”
ProPublica modeled and analyzed five years of EPA data to pinpoint more than 1,000 toxic hot spots across the country. Most of the worst hotspots are in southern states with weaker environmental oversight. ProPublica found that in majority Black census tracts, the estimated risk of cancer from toxic air emissions is more than twice the risk found in majority-white tracts.
In total, 256,000 people living in toxic hotspots may be exposed to greater excess risk than the 1 in 10,000 level that the EPA considers acceptable. An estimated 43,000 people are subjected to at least triple this level of risk. Even the 1 in 10,000 risk is high – EPA officials admit that the acceptable level ought to be 100x lower, 1 in a million, but they lowered the goalpost in 2008. The agency keeps 1 in 1 million as an aspirational goal. Under the former 1-in-a-million standard, 74 million Americans—more than one-fifth of the US population— are exposed to unacceptably high risk of cancer from industrial air pollution. (Note that this is in addition to cancer risks from other sources.)
As in the case of fracking, the petrochemical companies are commonly – but not always -- situated in the poorest and most powerless communities. There are sacrifice zones throughout the country, and many residents don’t even realize they are living in them. Behind the scenes, company lobbyists fight to keep their facilities unfettered by local, state and federal anti-pollution rules.
Many of these localities face declining quality of life, property values, and neighborhood infrastructure and services. Their populations are saddled with the stench, noise, and eyesore, and in many cases an elevated disease burden. Often the most contaminated, impoverished and disenfranchised communities are the very ones targeted for additional new cracker plants, shipments of hazardous chemical wastes, plastics-burning incinerators, and other sources of petrochemical pollution.
Disparities in Distribution of Particulate Matter Emission Sources by Race and Poverty Status
CBS News video: Reserve, Louisiana
What makes Texas a leader in petrochemical pollution?
Texas is home to multiple petrochemical industry sacrifice zones. The nation’s second highest concentration of carcinogenic air pollution is the area of Port Arthur, Texas, on the Louisiana border. The third most contaminated hotspot is the greater Houston area. The only part of the country with higher risk from air toxics is Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.
Nationwide, of the 20 hotspots with the most elevated cancer risk, five are in Texas. One such area is the city of Baytown, next to the Houston Ship Channel. This is among the busiest sea ports in the world and is one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the US. In all, the Texas Gulf Coast is home to four of the country's 10 biggest oil and gas refineries and thousands of chemical facilities.
Mont Belvieu, Texas, on the east side of Houston, is sometimes described as the heart of the petrochemical industry. This is the site of the monstrous geologic dome that stores natural gas liquids from fracking. These 3000-foot-deep caverns, built in salt formations, can hold more than 240 million barrels of natural gas liquids.
Here is a snapshot of Port Arthur, one of the most polluted communities (located 100 miles east of Houston on the Louisiana border), in the words of a 2017 Environmental Integrity Project report. The situation is no better today:
“Residents here have sacrificed much over the years for the growth of the oil and gas industry, including through tax abatements that their local governments have granted to refineries and through loose environmental controls. What the people of Port Arthur have received in return is an unemployment rate more than twice the national and state averages, and higher risks of cancer. The cancer mortality rate for African Americans in Jefferson County, including the predominantly black community of Port Arthur, is consistently about 40 percent higher than Texas’ overall cancer mortality rate. ... From 2012- 2016, there were 230 illegal air pollution “upset” events from industries in Port Arthur, and many of these incidents released toxic chemicals including benzene, a carcinogen, according to state records.” https://environmentalintegrity.org/reports/the-end-of-the-line-for-an-economic-myth/
And here is an Intercept video from Groves, Texas, near Port Neches (immediately northeast from Port Arthur), offering a window into the lives of eight best friends, high-school athletes who trained just feet from the gargantuan petrochemical plants. Several are now battling breast cancer.
Texas and Louisiana top the nation in production of ethylene oxide, a supremely toxic air contaminant that contributes to the highest number of excess cancers in the nation. In 2016, the EPA Integrated Risk Information System published a determination that ethylene oxide is actually 30 times more toxic than previously thought, causing cancers, miscarriages and other effects. It can linger in the air for months and it is highly mutagenic, meaning it can alter DNA.
What happened at Point Comfort, Texas?
One of the many noteworthy petrochemical hotspots in Texas is the Formosa Plastics complex in Point Comfort. This is among the largest petrochemicals production facilities in the world. The mega-complex includes three cracker plants and consumes as much energy (for plastics manufacture) as would be needed to heat and power several hundred-thousand homes. Formosa recently completed a five-billion-dollar expansion of the facility.
In September, 2021, Formosa was fined $2.85 million for violating the Clean Air Act and endangering workers and the public at its Point Comfort complex. The settlement was based on an investigation into the fires, explosions, and toxic chemical releases that have rocked the plant for many years.
The recent civil penalties follow a much larger settlement a year earlier. In 2019 the company settled a massive citizen suit for its violations of the Clean Water Act. That earlier case was brought by Diane Wilson, a retired shrimp boat captain who gathered 46 million plastic pellets that the company had discharged into local waterways. The pellets, called nurdles, are the building blocks of plastics, used to make everything from toothpaste tubes to car parts. Some plants manufacture more than a trillion each day.
Formosa was discharging these pellets into Cox Creek and Lavaca Bay, an area between Houston and Corpus Christi. The judge said Formosa is a “serial offender” and ordered the company to stop the spills and pay $50 million into a conservation trust fund. In addition, Formosa now must pay for ongoing monitoring.
Unfortunately, the company’s fixes have been superficial, and Formosa has continued to release nurdles with impunity. In the last quarter of 2021, the court-appointed monitor logged violations on 78 out of 91 days. In late 2022, Texas regulators scrapped a plan to require proactive prevention of nurdle pollution. Other plastics plants around the county continue to emit these plastic pellets on a massive scale.
Nurdles release petrochemical toxics such as phthalates, bisphenol A, flame retardants, organotins, and PFAS chemicals. Also, they absorb chemicals such as PCBs, DDT and mercury. In addition to suffering health effects from these toxic chemicals, birds and aquatic animals choke on the pellets and commonly starve when their stomachs are full of plastics.
How did Louisiana earn the top spot for petrochemical air pollution? (Spotlight on Mossville, St. Gabriel, St. John the Baptist Parish, and St. James Parish)
At the regional level, Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” — the area from New Orleans to Baton Rouge — has the nation’s highest concentration of carcinogenic air pollutants.
Louisiana began converting its plantation economy to petrochemicals in the early 1900s. By the 1940s, numerous petrochemical processing plants were built near the Mississippi River, many of them around Baton Rouge and New Orleans. In the 1950s, companies began building facilities in the less densely populated places in between, constructing massive industrial complexes immediately adjacent to unincorporated predominantly Black communities. These localities had no power or zoning authority with which to stop the influx, and in any case Black people were largely disenfranchised due to Jim Crow laws.
The heavily industrialized zone between Baton Rouge and New Orleans became known as Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River. By the 1970s, Cancer Alley was home to 136 petrochemical plants and seven oil refineries, including some of the largest facilities in the country. Today the number tops 150. Up and down this corridor, in Reserve, LaPlace, Morrisonville and other communities, factories producing chloroprene (for making synthetic rubber), vinyl chloride (for making PVC pipes and other plastics), and other petrochemicals emit vast amounts of some of the most dangerous chemicals known to humankind.
Louisiana’s chemical production is by no means limited to Cancer Alley. There are hubs all throughout the state. An oft-overlooked epi-center is Lake Charles, Louisiana, located in south-west Louisiana just across the state line from Port Arthur, Texas. The massive petrochemical facilities in Lake Charles include the Phillips 66 and Citgo Lake Charles crude oil refineries and the Sasol ethane cracker.
Here is a fascinating video explaining “Why Louisiana Stays Poor.” Louisiana has been the only state in the country to allow a state-level entity (the little-known, unelected Louisiana Board of Commerce and Industry) to declare companies exempt from local property taxes (called ad valorem taxes) funding public schools, roads, health care, police, and other parish services. The state has been giving exemptions for between 66 and 99.99 percent of tax revenue to every company in the state. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWTic9btP38
Recently has there been an effort to fix this situation; now the state gives tax exemptions of 80 percent instead of the full 100.
Health Impacts of Petrochemical Expansion in Louisiana and Realistic Options for Affected Communities (2021) (this is a well-researched law review article from the Tulane Environmental Law Journal)
See online excerpts from this book:
Reworking the working coast: Economic change and the geography of opportunity in Southeast
Northwest of Lake Charles, the unincorporated predominantly African American community of Mossville Louisiana was founded by formerly enslaved people in the 1790s and later became a center for vinyl chloride production. It is surrounded by refineries and petrochemical plants.
The town has long had a contentious relationship with public health authorities including with EPA and ATSDR (the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Research). In 1998, in response to petitions by Greenpeace and a Mossville community organization, ATSDR tested residents’ blood and found elevated levels of dioxins. But state and federal officials denigrated locals’ concerns and downplayed the findings, pegging causation to other sources -- even though it was later determined that the type of dioxin in locals’ blood exactly matched that emitted by the factories. Authorities tried to blame the findings on poor food choices and in particular the local consumption of fish. A follow-up study included a parish-wide re-screening using a geographic radius so large that it effectively neutralized the local results (by averaging the extremes into the entire region). Officials refused to collect air samples, relying instead on their own faulty modeling.
Fast-forward two decades and now Mossville is in the process of being bought out by the petrochemical companies. It joins Morrisonville, Reveilletown, Sunrise and Diamond, wiping off the map five communities founded by formerly enslaved people. The locations became too contaminated to live in. Residents’ health, quality of life, and property values plunged due to the petrochemical build-out and resulting pollution. The companies can use the purchased property to create a buffer zone, which saves them millions in insurance premiums.
In the words of ProPublica, “Among the most polluted pockets of the country, the community in southwest Louisiana has all but disappeared amid the steady encroachment of the South African chemical giant Sasol. The company’s most recent construction led to a buyout of more than half of the area's remaining residents. In the late 1990s, more than 500 people lived in Mossville. Residents say only 50 or so remain.”
Here is the trailer for a documentary video about Mossville:
Mossville: When Great Trees Fall, Official Trailer
Note that community buy-out offers are rare. And when they do occur, residents are generally compensated at very low rates, making it difficult to find a new place to live.
Health Impacts of Petrochemical Expansion in Louisiana and Realistic Options for Affected Communities
SPOTLIGHT: St. Gabriel
ProPublica published an eye-opening report about St. Gabriel, Louisiana, a former riverside hamlet once surrounded by farmland and the remnants of old plantations. It is home to two prisons and a juvenile re-training center, a morgue for hundreds of hurricane victims and about 30 large petrochemical plants including, not far from the municipal center, the world’s largest manufacturer of polystyrene (Styrofoam).
St. Gabriel residents describe the golden mists they used to experience due to nighttime chemical releases, and how each new petrochemical company promised jobs but the positions never materialized. A 1995 survey found that fewer than nine percent of the industry jobs were held by locals. Residents learned not to get their hopes up when new facilities moved in. The city’s per capita annual income is $15,000 and its poverty rate, 29 percent. Not only were the local residents unable to get jobs, but their health has suffered from the toxic air emissions. Meanwhile, St. Gabriel’s sidewalks, roads, sewage system and other facilities decayed further, as municipal infrastructure was not a priority for the companies nor the state.
In 1994, the residents of St. Gabriel decided to incorporate. They voted, and the measure passed by a 3 to 1 margin. Incorporation was a clever move. As an un-incorporated municipality, St. Gabriel had existed as a municipality governed by a charter from the state of Louisiana. As an incorporated town, however, St. Gabriel could elect representatives and could secure control over important decisions such as zoning.
Not only did St. Gabriel incorporate, but it did so as a 30-square-mile city far beyond the size of its own neighborhoods. This enabled St. Gabriel to deny future petrochemical permit applications by using its residential, commercial and industrial zoning authorities. Now, while the city still struggles with poverty and crime, and remains heavily polluted from its many factories, at least residents have better roads and sidewalks, sewerage and water infrastructure, and they are using their zoning authority to keep out new petrochemical facilities. The cancer risks in St. Gabriel remain extremely high, as shown on the ProPublica cancer maps.
Here is an interesting and troubling twist to the story: “Not surprisingly, perhaps, the chemical industry has opposed subsequent incorporation drives. Shortly after St. Gabriel became a town, its neighbor, Geismar, just downriver in Ascension Parish, tried to do the same. The industry, neutral on St. Gabriel’s incorporation effort, fought hard against Geismar’s. Meanwhile, at the state Capitol, lobbyists persuaded lawmakers to bar new municipalities from taking in industrial areas. Geismar’s effort ended when Shell, Borden Chemicals and nine other large petrochemical companies obtained a court injunction preventing residents from taking further steps to incorporate. Few other communities have taken the initiative since.”
Unfortunately for St. Gabriel and its neighbors (including Geismar), the petrochemical industry continues to expand and build new facilities just over the St. Gabriel city line, including a $147 million expansion of an Occidental Chemical plant and new Praxair and Kinder Morgan facilities. Across the river from St. Gabriel, the Japanese company Shintech opened a new $1.4 billion ethylene production cracker in 2020, and is also opening a $1.4 billion chlor alkali and vinyl chloride manufacturing facility to produce PVC plastics.
As for Shintech’s vinyl chloride operations, here is a quick annotation on vinyl chloride and polyvinyl chloride (PVC, plastic #3).
PVC is made by combining chlorine and ethylene together with phthalates, lead, and other additives. Many consider it the most toxic polymer type. Vinyl chloride is a well-established animal and human carcinogen with no safe level of exposure. It is most strongly associated with angiosarcoma of the liver, and also causes brain and lung cancer, lymphoma and leukemia. It is extremely harmful to workers, and can also affect surrounding communities through air and water contamination. Dangerously high levels of vinyl chloride have been found not only in and around petrochemical facilities but also in the vicinity of hazardous waste sites and municipal landfills.
Polyvinyl chloride in health care
SPOTLIGHT: St. John the Baptist Parish
The highest cancer risk in the US is found in Reserve, Louisiana, an unincorporated largely African American lower-wealth town of 10,000 located in St. John the Baptist Parish, smack in the middle of Cancer Alley. The cancer risk from toxic air pollution in Reserve is nearly 50 times the national average.
The primary source of lethal emissions in Reserve is the Pontchartrain Works facility, which was operated for a half century by DuPont and is now owned by the Japanese company Denka. The factory emits several dozen hazardous industrial chemicals including the intensely toxic chloroprene, which is used to make the synthetic rubber neoprene used in tires, wetsuits, medical equipment, and other products. [Note that synthetic rubber now lines children’s playgrounds and sports fields, a cynical way for companies to dispose of some of the billions of contaminated waste tires.]
The EPA air monitors around Reserve have yielded worrisome results. The worst was in 2017 when a monitoring station at an elementary school recorded chloroprene levels 755 times more than the EPA guidance levels. The Denka company rejected EPA’s findings, arguing that they were based on flawed science. Residents joined together as a committee, Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist, but unfortunately their pleas were ignored by the company and by elected officials, who are very closely tied to the petrochemical industry. The Louisiana Secretary of Environmental Quality Chuck Carr Brown, a former petrochemical industry consultant, accused Concerned Citizens of “fear-mongering.”
As the Trump Administration rolled back dozens of environmental protections across the nation, Denka hired lobbyists in Washington, DC and pressed former EPA administrator Pruitt to withdraw the conclusions of EPA’s independent scientific unit (called the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS) on the link between chloroprene and cancer. In a letter to Scott Pruitt, Denka’s CEO argued that the company had “suffered extraordinary hardship” because of flawed science, which had “created unnecessary public alarm.” The American Chemistry Council – the lobbying arm for the plastics and petrochemical industry – also asked EPA to change the values used to calculate its safety levels. EPA stood firm.
The duplicity is quite stunning given that Denka, and before it, DuPont, have long been aware of chloroprene’s dangers to human health. As far back as 1956, a DuPont technical manual warned that high concentrations of chloroprene “cause depression of the central nervous system and damage to vital organs.”
Note that DuPont ranks as the world’s worst chemical company out of 54 reviewed by the Swedish organization ChemSec. Dupont received a solid F on its report card due to its complete lack of transparency, disinterest in safer chemicals, litigation over PFAS, and other factors.
St. John the Baptist Parish is densely packed with other super-polluters, as well. The nearby St. Charles Operations Union Carbide plant releases extremely high levels of ethylene oxide, formaldehyde, butadiene, 1,3- and 13 other carcinogens. Other heavy polluters include the Shell Norco Chemical plant and the Evonik Materials Corp.
Fast forward to February 28, 2023, and the Department of Justice is suing Denka and DuPont, on behalf of the EPA. The DOJ seeks to compel Denka to significantly reduce hazardous chloroprene emissions from its neoprene manufacturing facility, asserting that the facility’s operations “present an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health and welfare due to the cancer risks from Denka’s chloroprene emissions.” The DOJ’s complaint notes the extreme cancer risk to children. Denka’s chloroprene’s emissions reach more than 300 young children who attend the 5th Ward Elementary School, located within approximately 450 feet of Denka’s facility, as well as 1,200 children who attend East St. John High School, located a mile-and-a-half north of Denka.
SPOTLIGHT: St. James Parish
(located immediately to the west of St. John the Baptist Parish)
On April 23, 2018, Louisiana’s Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards and Formosa Petrochemical Corp. executive Keh-Yen Lin announced that the company had selected a 2,300-acre site in St. James Parish in Louisiana for a $9.4 billion manufacturing complex. The 14 plastics plants, including multiple crackers and processing facilities, would produce ethylene, propylene, ethylene glycol (used in antifreeze and in the manufacture of polyester) and associated polymers.
Making 2.4 million tons of ethylene per year, this would be the largest-ever standalone cracking facility in the world. Formosa would receive about $1.5 billion in state and parish tax breaks.
The press release emphasized the company’s “deep commitment to social, environmental and safety performance,” and claimed that “The Sunshine Project would create 1,200 new direct jobs averaging $84,500, plus benefits. Louisiana Economic Development estimates the project also would result in 8,000 new indirect jobs, for a total of more than 9,000 jobs in the River Parishes and surrounding regions of Louisiana.”
The real picture may be less rosy than what we read in the press release. The Formosa facility would roughly double toxic emissions in St. James and would release as much as 15,400 pounds of the carcinogen ethylene oxide. In addition, in 2020 Louisiana regulators approved a permit allowing Formosa to emit 13.6 million tons of planet-heating carbon dioxide per year, the equivalent of three coal-fired power plants or adding 2.6 million cars to the roads each year.
The New Orleans City Council voted unanimously to oppose the plant. The United Nations Human Rights Council called it environmental racism and said that the plant would more than double the parish’s cancer risks. All this in a location that is already dense with petrochemical facilities. And just next door, residents living in the town of Reserve, in St. John the Baptist Parish, face the highest cancer risk in the nation (due in large part to toxic air emissions from a petrochemical facility formerly owned by DuPont and now owned by a Japanese company, Denka). Pollution does not observe parish boundaries.
Here is an NBC News video about the proposed Formosa plant and the disproportionate impacts on people of color.
The company, Formosa, has a poor track record for health and safety. Formosa ranks third to worst in ChemSec’s December, 2022 rating of the world’s fifty-four biggest chemical companies. ChemSec evaluated companies’ performance in four different categories: the toxicity of their product portfolio, research & development of non-toxic chemicals, management & transparency and the number of controversies and scandals that the company has been involved in. The only companies that received lower scores are China’s Sinopec Shanghai Petrochemical, and – rock bottom – the USA’s DuPont.
Formosa’s poor standing is due in part to its extreme secrecy in operations, its nonexistent interest in sustainable chemicals management and development of safer products, and its numerous explosions, air pollution incidents, and other environmental breaches. The scandals have involved poisoning more than 125 miles of Vietnam’s coastline with cyanide in 2016 as well as more recent environmental contamination in Taiwan and in the US This includes the pollution of Lavaca Bay and Texas waterways with billions of plastic pellets in violation of state permits and the federal Clean Water Act. In 2019 Formosa settled that case for $50 million. In September 2021 the company agreed to pay $2.85 million in civil penalties for a series of fires, explosions and accidental releases that sickened and injured workers and endangered public health at its petrochemical manufacturing plant in Point Comfort, Texas.
Louisiana Senators Cassidy (R) and John Kennedy (R) are both staunch advocates for the Formosa plant and for the petrochemical industry more broadly. But House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Grijalva (D-AZ) and Rep. McEachin (D-VA) were urging President Biden to permanently revoke the permit that the Army Corps of Engineers had granted Formosa under the Clean Water Act for excavation and the filling in of wetlands around the proposed St. James petrochemical complex.
Following President Biden’s election in November 2020, the Army Corps proceeded to withdraw the permit. In August 2021, the Corps announced it would commission a full environmental impact study under the National Environmental Policy Act, further delaying the project. The decision is a win for the Center for Biological Diversity and community groups who had sued to block the project in January 2020.
In October 2021, the Standard and Poor’s credit rating service re-affirmed a BBB+ rating of Formosa and suggested that the project delays are helping the company build up its cash reserves. The analysts questioned sinking money into a project with an uncertain future.
[There are 17 possible S&P scores but BBB is the lowest of their “investment grade” ratings; anything lower is considered a “speculative” investment. A rating of BBB is considered, “adequate capacity to meet financial commitments, but more subject to adverse economic conditions.” This project got BBB plus (+), which is better than a straight BBB.]
The S&P review describes Formosa’s so-called Sunshine Plant as follows: “A further delay in the Louisiana chemical complex, if the project is not cancelled, gives the four companies more time to strengthen the financial buffer for the ratings. We see diminishing probability that the planned mega project in Louisiana will go ahead, given the changing political atmosphere in the US A decision by US officials in August 2021 to order an environmental impact statement for the project cast significant doubt over its future. The project has been on hold since November 2020 when the US government suspended a permit amid protests from local environmental groups. Formosa Petrochemical Corp. planned to review the project’s feasibility by the end of 2021. This was based on further potential delays as a result of the impact statement, sharply higher construction costs due to high inflation in material prices and wages, hefty tariffs on imported equipment from China, and lower availability of local labor due to the pandemic.”
In parallel with the Army Corps decisions regarding the Clean Water Act, there were also developments on the air pollution side. Environmental groups in February 2020 had filed a lawsuit challenging the air quality permits that Louisiana granted to Formosa. The plaintiffs (including RISE St. James, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the Center for Biological Diversity, Healthy Gulf, the Sierra Club, Earthworks, and No Waste Louisiana) argued that Formosa would be adding fine particulates and nitrogen dioxide to an area that already violates EPA’s mandatory national standards. And they challenged the permits for dangerous air pollutants such as benzene, formaldehyde, and ethylene oxide.
In September 2022, Judge Trudy White of Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District in Baton Rouge issued a decision striking down the air permits that Louisiana state regulators had granted to Formosa. This is a huge victory for local communities. The judge’s ruling sharply criticized the state for using selective and inconsistent data and for failing to consider the health effects that would be faced by local communities.
Formosa intends to move forward with its “Sunshine Plant” despite the rulings. To do so, it will need to start over in applying for permits, which it claims had been granted properly. Despite its plans to blanket the community with ethylene oxide and other carcinogenic air pollutants, the company states that the health of residents would not be affected. Formosa asserts that ultimately it will win the legal battle and build the plant.
Why is toxic air pollution getting worse in the Ohio River Valley? (Spotlight on Beaver County, PA and Belmont County, OH)
The petrochemical industry has set its sights on the Ohio River Valley. The geology is rich in natural gas, which is the feedstock for 90 percent of plastics and other petrochemicals produced in the US There are thousands of fracking wells. The Marcellus shale – the sedimentary rock from which natural gas is extracted -- runs deep underground beneath parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia. Even farther underground and larger is the Utica shale – now accessible with deep drilling technologies – which covers these same states plus Kentucky and Tennessee.
This area has a long history of natural resource extraction and chemical manufacturing, particularly in the Kanawha River Valley (known as “Chemical Valley”) in West Virginia. The region is rich in coal, oil, gas, and salt resources. There is a high concentration of chemical companies including Union Carbide, DuPont, and Dow, producing explosives, antifreeze, solvents, pesticides, PFAS, and other chemical products.
A major draw for the petrochemical sector is area’s proximity to much of the US and Canada’s plastics manufacturing sector. The firm IHS Markit estimates that 73 percent of manufacturing facilities that use polyethylene as a building block, and 67 percent of those using polypropylene, fall within a 700-mile radius of the new Shell Chemical ethane cracker plant in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Given the already-large footprint of the chemical industry in this region, the ready markets for plastics polymers, and the extensive fracking and related oil and gas developments, the interest in building ethane crackers and storage facilities comes as no surprise. The Ohio River Valley is becoming a national hub for natural gas, in some ways mirroring the infrastructure in place in Louisiana and Texas.
As noted earlier, the Appalachian petrochemical build-out is considered strategic from the standpoint of national energy security. The concentration of US petrochemical capacity in the Gulf Coast leaves the industry vulnerable to the extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent as the planet heats up. The US Department of Energy has been eager to situate more of the natural gas and plastics-making infrastructure out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, in ramping up production, the US also risks sickening local communities and accelerating the climate crisis, including the number and gravity of the hurricanes, tornados, fires, floods, droughts, and other disasters.
SPOTLIGHT: Beaver County, Pennsylvania
Home to vast natural gas resources, Pennsylvania and neighboring states have spent years trying to lure plastics companies. Over the past decade, regional leaders have courted seven different petrochemical enterprises including ethane crackers and a multi-state storage and trading hub. The region has offered companies large tax credits, grants, loans and other incentives.
In 2012 Pennsylvania authorized a tax credit to Shell worth roughly $1.65 billion (a $66 million annual tax break for 25 years) for ethylene facilities. The benefits package given to Shell is the largest tax credit offered to a single company in the state's history.
The Shell project is taking place in Beaver County, a former steel and coal-mining region that has been trying to recover from past economic hardships and from decades of heavy pollution. The area is dense with fracking wells – 333 have permits in Beaver County alone.
See MarcellusGas.org: https://www.marcellusgas.org/index.php?county_id=23
The FracTracker Alliance states that as of January 11, 2023, there are records of 218,260 drilled and proposed wells in Pennsylvania, which have been assessed 64,880 violations since 2008.
https://www.fractracker.org/map/us/pennsylvania/ An investigation concluded last year that Pennsylvania state regulatory agencies have failed to protect county residents from serious health consequences and water contamination caused by fracking.
Shell’s Pennsylvania Petrochemical Complex is the first ethane cracker built outside of the Gulf Coast in 20 years. It will produce 1.6 million tons of polyethylene plastic pellets per year, and in the process release an annual 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide, as much as 480,000 cars. It is also projected to emit the third-highest amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs, such as benzene) from a single source in Pennsylvania.
The $6+ billion complex became operational in November 2022, although it won’t be running at full capacity for another year. Already the plant has experienced multiple malfunctions, unplanned toxic chemical releases and flaring events – some quite dramatic. Before even becoming operational, the facility was out of compliance with its air quality permits: its state air permit allows it to emit 516 tons of volatile organic compounds over any 12-month period, but in September 2022 alone Shell released 512 tons of VOCs, almost a year’s worth of VOC pollution. The facility has continued to exceed its emissions quotas since it became operational in November 2022. The frequency and extent of the violations and Shell’s lack of transparency have been unnerving for the surrounding communities. The company keeps secret the details regarding what happens and which chemicals are released into the local neighborhoods. In February 2023, the Environmental Integrity Project and the Clean Air Council filed a notice of intent to sue Shell for its illegal emissions of VOCs and nitrogen oxides.
Connected to the plant, Shell has built a 97-mile three-state pipeline that runs beneath farmland, through many towns, and beneath a water line connected to a drinking water reservoir. The pipeline carries with it the risk of leaks, fires, and explosions involving potential air and water contamination.
The Shell plant is also permitted to release significant toxic pollutants into the Ohio River watershed. Before the facility came online, FracTracker Alliance and EarthWorks evaluated the extent of the proposed discharges.
Using National Pollutant Discharge and Elimination System (NPDES) permit data, the researchers found that petrochemical facilities have been permitted to release each year more than 500,000 pounds of toxic pollutants into the Ohio River Basin watershed. The permitted toxics include known carcinogens like benzene, vinyl chloride, and trichloroethylene and over 100 other chemicals that can affect human health in a variety of ways, including birth defects, developmental disorders, and effects to the central nervous system and endocrine system. FracTracker and EarthWorks determined that Shell’s ethane cracker will increase the rate of permitted discharge of toxic vinyl chloride by 68 percent and trichloroethylene by 75 percent.
Given the global plastics surplus, the safety risks, the air and water pollution, and the climate impacts, many observers question Pennsylvania’s efforts to expand petrochemical development. The Shell facility is an example of “sunk cost fallacy.” Having sunk billions of dollars into the plant, it is hardly imaginable that Shell would turn its back on the project now, even though it may not make sense to proceed.
Whatever happens, Pennsylvania taxpayers are left saddled with the economic costs, including the direct subsidies to Shell, and the significant price-tag for everything from road maintenance to environmental remediation to public health damage. And the entire region faces elevated risks from the transport of highly explosive and toxic chemicals – as seen in the horrific train derailment next door in East Palestine, Ohio, exposing residents to the carcinogenic vinyl chloride that is used to make PVC plastic.
Those hoping to flee the toxic pollution may have to contend with a change in property values, which generally decline more the closer the homes are located to plastics facilities or related petrochemical disasters. Potential home buyers are understandably worried about air and water quality, health risks, noise, stench, congestion, and safety.
Shell’s heavily-polluting plastics-cracking facility in Pennsylvania seems out-of-sync with its global efforts to put a green spin on the company’s enterprises and with some of its flagship projects in Germany and The Netherlands. As reported in Chemical and Engineering News,
“Shell plans to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, meaning it will have to reduce, or offset, all its greenhouse gas emissions. It will redefine itself as something other than an oil company. Its 13 refineries will become 6 energy and chemical “parks” that will increasingly supply renewable energy and chemicals produced from alternative feedstocks. Shell is part of a consortium that will build a water electrolysis plant in Germany to make green hydrogen. The firm is replacing 16 ethylene steam cracker furnaces in Moerdijk, the Netherlands, with 8 new ones to reduce carbon emissions by 10%. Shell is collaborating with Dow to replace conventional gas-fired ethylene furnaces with electrically heated ones that run on renewable power. And it is starting to use synthetic crude oil derived from waste plastics at its ethylene cracker in Norco, Louisiana.”
The First 100 Days: Shell’s Beaver County Ethane Cracker Report Card
Notice of Intent to sue Shell: https://environmentalintegrity.org/news/environmental-groups-take-legal-action-against-pa-chemical-plant-for-air-pollution-violations/
FracTracker and EarthWorks’ full report on the Ohio River watershed:
SPOTLIGHT: Belmont County, Ohio
In fits and starts, plans are underway for a second ethane cracker in Belmont County in the southeast part of Ohio. The corporate sponsor is PTT Global Chemical (PTTGC), headquartered in Bangkok. This is Thailand’s largest petrochemical and refining company.
In addition to an ethane cracker, three high-density polyethylene plants, and one low-density polyethylene plant, the facility would include the first underground storage site for natural gas liquids from the Marcellus and Utica shales.
A group called JobsOhio spent more than $67 million since 2015 to encourage PTTGC to proceed with the project. In August, 2021, PTTGC announced that the effort is on hold while the company secures a new partner for the storage and transportation components of the project. The former partner, the South Korean company Daelim, had withdrawn from the project. Citing price volatility and economic uncertainties, PTTGC has not yet made the final investment decision on whether to proceed. JobsOhio received back a $20 million loan, but the remaining $47 million does not have to be paid back.
PTTGC is considered one of the worst chemical manufacturers in the world. In its December, 2022 report, the Swedish organization ChemSec gave PTTGC a rating of D for its commitment to chemicals management and sustainability, ranking it the fourth worst out of 54 chemical companies. The low ratings are partly because of the company’s lack of transparency, and also because of its production of extremely toxic banned chemicals, its absence of interest in safer alternatives, and its large number of controversies. Recent ones have included lawsuits against the company for destruction of Indonesia’s coral reefs and mangrove forests, a fire and explosion in Thailand, and damage from oil leaks and spills.
The Sierra Club, FreshWater Accountability Project and EarthWorks filed an appeal against Ohio EPA’s issuance of the air permit for the PTTGC ethane cracker. They argued that projections underestimated the amount of pollution the plant would emit and that more technological safeguards would be needed, in particular to control benzene emissions. The parties settled in 2019 when PTTGC agreed to include enhanced leak protection, additional stack testing, and publication of more data on a public website. The Sierra Club continues to oppose the project.
The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis has been urging PTTGC and Ohio regulators to preserve the company’s credit ratings by cancelling its air pollution permit. They suggest that sinking more resources into the facility would waste time and money, and that – like the Formosa Plastics plant in Louisiana -- the project will likely be cancelled down the road.
“The long-delayed Ohio petrochemical complex proposed by PTTGC would do well to heed a heads-up from a Standard & Poor’s credit opinion issued for a similar project proposed by Formosa Plastics. The message: Cancelling the proposed plant will be better for their credit rating than moving forward with it. Regulators have an opportunity this week to do it for them.” [Statement of 22 February 2022.]
On March 8, 2022, PTTGC announced that it will draft a new air permit request to submit to Ohio authorities, given that the prior permit expired in February. The company would benefit from the trained workforce available from the nearby Shell plant in Beaver County, thus lowering its costs for the specialized petrochemical cracker construction and related pipeline construction. The company has announced plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2030 and to achieve net- zero emissions by 2050. It is not clear how this would be achieved.
The decision on the PTTGC plant will also affect another project, the Mountaineer Storage Hub, a proposed natural gas liquids storage facility along the Ohio River. A coalition of environmental groups -- Sierra Club, FreshWater Accountability Project, Concerned Ohio River Residents, and Buckeye Environmental Network, represented by Earthjustice -- are suing in the Ohio Court of Appeals.
“In granting approval for the Powhatan Salt Company to construct three injection wells for the storage facility in Monroe County, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources violated Ohio law and the federal Safe Drinking Water Act by failing to disclose that the caverns would be used for storing fracked gas liquids or to study the impacts on underground sources of drinking water.” https://www.sierraclub.org/sites/www.sierraclub.org/files/blog/MandamusPetition_CORR.pdf
Is the petrochemical industry building new production facilities in the US?
Yes. The industry is ramping up plastics production. According to Chemical and Engineering News, 2022 was the biggest year on record for ethylene cracker plant openings in the US
NEW IN 2022: EXXONMOBIL AND SABIC IN SAN PATRICIO COUNTY, TEXAS
In January 2022, ExxonMobil and the Saudi Basic Industries Corp. (SABIC) launched Gulf Coast Growth Ventures in San Patricio County, Texas. The $10 billion, 16-acre facility boasts what is said to be the largest ethane cracker in the world, with an estimated production capacity of 1.8 million metric tons of ethylene per year. The plant is producing plastics for packaging, agricultural film, construction materials, clothing and automotive coolants.
SABIC is a $40 billion company that manufactures chemicals, fertilizers and plastics. It is owned by the world’s biggest and most profitable oil company, Aramco, which is owned by the government of Saudi Arabia and is considered the most valuable company in the world. SABIC owns seven other plastics-making facilities in the US, several of which been cited for large-scale emissions of benzene, styrene, and other human carcinogens.
NEW IN 2022: TOTAL-ENERGIES AND BOREALIS IN PORT ARTHUR, TEXAS
In July, the French company Total and the Austrian firm Borealis opened a new $2 billion ethane cracker in Port Arthur, Texas. The facility began operating two years later than planned. The new cracker will produce one million tons of plastic pellets per year.
The plant adds more toxic emissions to an area that is already smothered by toxic air pollution from other plastics-making factories. Port Arthur has the nation’s second worst levels of carcinogenic air emissions due to the heavy concentration of petrochemical facilities. What these European companies get away with in Texas would never be allowed in their home countries.
NEW IN 2022: SHELL IN BEAVER COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA
As noted above, in November, Shell opened a $6 billion petrochemical complex in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. The plant is the state’s largest industrial project since World War II. It is receiving $1.65 billion in tax credits from state coffers in addition to local tax breaks. The facility will produce 1.6 metric tons of plastic per year.
Even before going operational, the Shell facility was experiencing malfunctions, unplanned toxic emissions, and a flaring event that lit the sky orange in Beaver County. The company’s secrecy and disdain for local residents has been unnerving to many local residents including those on the staff of Moms Clean Air Force.
IN-THE-WORKS: QATAR-ENERGY & CHEVRON PHILLIPS IN ORANGE, TX
In November, QatarEnergy and Chevron Phillips announced plans to proceed with construction of an $8.5 billion dollar company in Orange, Texas. It is claimed to be Qatar’s largest petrochemical investment ever. The facility will make plastic for packaging and other items. It will include an ethane cracker producing 2 million tons of ethylene per year, plus two polyethylene facilities, each churning out about 1 million tons of plastic polymers. It is slated to open in 2026.
The petrochemical industry has in its sights several additional production facilities in the coming years. Among the largest are:
- The Formosa Plastics facility, a $9.4 billion industrial complex in St. James Parish, Louisiana, an area that already has 12 petrochemical facilities in a 10-mile-radius. The facility would produce 2.4 million tons of plastic per year.
- The PTTGC facility in Belmont County, Ohio, which would produce 1.6 million tons of polyethylene per year.
- Equistar Chemicals, Dow Chemical Company, Formosa Plastics, and Ineos USA are also expanding their existing plants.
Industry analysts have suggested that we should expect a greater reticence to build new infrastructure in the coming years, given financial uncertainties and delays in key projects. To date, however, we are only seeing a rush toward more and more production capacity.
Some observers believe that the current rush by SABIC and others to build new plastic-making facilities in the US is part of an effort by foreign companies to buy up the rights to US natural gas and to re-direct its use from energy to plastics. The goal is to prevent the United States from selling the gas to Europe, where it is needed as energy to heat homes. Building plastics factories domestically limits the global supply and enables Saudi Arabia and other countries to keep prices high for natural gas resources globally.
This 2019 investigation by ProPublica (2019) offers insight into the relentless, far-reaching petrochemical industry expansion:
Welcome to “Cancer Alley,” Where Toxic Air Is About to Get Worse
Laws and Regulations
What agencies oversee the petrochemical sector?
Multiple federal and state entities are involved in oversight of the petrochemical sector. The primary ones include:
- The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA (responsible for the Clean Air Act provisions; for the Clean Water Act pollutant discharge permits; and for much of the National Environmental Policy Act). See below for more on the role of EPA.
- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA (regulating worker health and safety).
- The US Army Corps of Engineers (responsible for permits for the excavation and filling in of wetlands, particularly relevant now at Formosa/St James Parish, LA).
- The Bureau of Land Management (responsible for the regulations concerning the exploration, permitting, development and production of oil and gas deposits on federally leased lands).
- The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC (responsible for the interstate transmission of oil and gas, including reviews on new and abandoned natural gas facilities and pipelines, and the issuance of environmental assessments and EIS’s. FERC reviews applications to build pipelines and liquefaction terminals for liquefied natural gas.)
- The Department of Transportation Office of Pipeline Safety (overseeing the safety of natural gas and hazardous liquid pipeline transportation) and Federal Railroad Administration (overseeing the movement of hazardous materials by rail, including petroleum, chemical, and nuclear products, staffed by individuals with close ties to the railroad industry).
- The Council on Environmental Quality within the Executive Office of the President (overseeing National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) implementation, primarily through guidance and interpreting regulations).
- The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a part of the Office of Management and Budget within the Executive Office of the President. OIRA reviews significant draft and final regulatory actions from agencies under a variety of statutory and Executive Order authorities before they are released to the public. It is one of the last stops a rule makes before being published. The office is given 90 days to review a rule, although this can be extended.
- The Department of Energy (promoting the “Appalachian petrochemical renaissance” and research and development of natural gas liquids, carbon capture, and chemical recycling. DOE also reviews applications to export liquefied natural gas to other countries). Here is an excerpt from DOE’s website:
“The economic benefit of expanding the petrochemical industry from the Gulf Coast region to Appalachia could be substantial…DOE estimates that the ethane resource in the Appalachian region is large enough to support at least five world-class petrochemical crackers, a regional pipeline and storage network, and extensive downstream manufacturing facilities.” In addition, DOE continues to promote plastics-incineration technologies.
- The Department of Justice, enforcing federal laws, issues penalties, and protects civil rights. This includes actions to reduce the environmental and public health burdens in overburdened and underserved low-income communities, communities of color, and Tribal and indigenous communities. The DOJ collaborates with EPA and other agencies, for example in a recent settlement requiring the Westlake Chemical Corporation (the world’s biggest producer of PVC plastic) to comply with Clean Air Act rules for flaring benzene and other hazardous air pollutants at three petrochemical facilities in Kentucky and Louisiana. (Westlake agreed to pay a piddling $1 million civil penalty.) DOJ has established an Office of Environmental Justice to integrate the concerns of frontline communities throughout the Department and in each US Attorney’s Office.
- State agencies (which play a significant and varied role in implementing federal and state rules and regulations for the production of natural gas liquids, the manufacturing of petrochemicals, and the incineration of waste plastics). EPA delegates most of its enforcement powers to state and local pollution control authorities. Some states such as California have active state regulators, while states like Texas and Louisiana are known for their lax regulations.
In April 2022, the California State Attorney General announced a major investigation into the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries for their role in causing and exacerbating the global plastics pollution crisis: “For decades, these industries have aggressively promoted the development of oil-based plastic products and campaigned to minimize the public’s understanding of the harmful consequences of these products. The Attorney General’s investigation will examine the industries' historic and ongoing efforts to deceive the public and whether, and to what extent, these actions may have violated the law. As part of the investigation, the Attorney General today issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil, a major source of global plastics pollution, seeking information relating to the company's role in deceiving the public.”
What is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)?
NEPA requires federal agencies to perform an environmental review for each proposed “major federal action,” such as a permit decision. NEPA does not require agencies to adopt an environmentally sound option, but it does make them analyze the options thoroughly and consider possible modifications, alternatives, and environmental, climate, and public health consequences. Draft reviews must be publicly disclosed and open for public comment. The final environmental reviews can be challenged in court. NEPA reviews may delay the permitting process, and often they lead to better outcomes.
Each federal agency is required to develop procedures that supplement the NEPA guidance from the Council on Environmental Quality, with the EPA playing a central role. Not only does EPA prepare its own NEPA documents for compliance, but under section 309 of the Clean Air Act, EPA is charged with reviewing and commenting on the adequacy and acceptability of the Environmental Impact Statements of other federal agencies. These reviews become public documents. The EPA also administers the Environmental Impact Statement database for all federal agencies.
During the Obama Administration, the CEQ directed agencies to consider climate change in NEPA reviews. The Trump Administration revoked that guidance, but the Trump policies were later rescinded by the Biden team. CEQ revised and updated the Obama guidance, and issued new interim guidance in January 2023.
A consequential NEPA case involves the US Army Corps of Engineers’ August 2021 decision to conduct a full environmental impact statement of Formosa Plastics’ proposed new petrochemical complex in St. James Parish, Louisiana. The decision is the result of massive public outcry and a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity on behalf of local community groups. This will help delay the project by two or more years, or perhaps indefinitely.
What is the Clean Air Act?
The 1970 Clean Air Act is a landmark environmental law that has been widely celebrated for its success in saving lives and reducing the incidence of respiratory illness in children. Unfortunately, as a vehicle for protecting fence-line communities from toxic and carcinogenic air pollutants, the Act has been less effective.
The Clean Air Act aims to protect human health and the environment from both mobile and stationary sources of pollution. Mobile sources are cars, trucks, trains, marine vessels, airplanes, lawn equipment (e.g., leaf blowers), farm and construction machines, and so forth. Stationary sources include power plants, petrochemical facilities, and industrial factories. The stationary sources are further sub-divided into two categories: point sources (such as a chemical solvent degreaser plant) and area sources, meaning smaller emissions that are widely distributed but have substantive cumulative emissions, such as residential water heaters and agricultural fertilizer applications.
Here is an updated CRS report on the key provisions of the Clean Air Act, including the NESHAPS and the New Source Performance Standards
Clean Air Act: A Summary of the Act and Its Major Requirements (Sept. 13, 2022)
What are the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS)?
The Clean Air Act authorizes EPA to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) in every state to protect public health from widespread air pollutants. The six “criteria air pollutants” are carbon monoxide, lead, ground-level ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. This part of the Act has received the lion’s share of attention and funding. EPA sets the NAAQS standards and then establishes which areas meet the standards (attainment) and which areas do not meet them (non-attainment).
EPA directs the states to develop State Implementation Plans (SIPs), formally adopted into state law, to meet and maintain their air quality goals. State and local air pollution authorities develop these State Implementation Plans, purportedly with public input, and submit them to EPA for approval. The Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 set dates for achieving attainment of the air pollution standards. Vast areas of the country remain in nonattainment for the various NAAQS pollutants.
What are Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPS) and the National Emissions Standards For Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAPS)?
The Clean Air Act also addresses hazardous air pollutants, or HAPs, which are the industrial pollutants that sicken workers and fence-line communities. EPA regulates HAPs under the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAPs) Program.
While the criteria air pollutants referenced above are surely unhealthy, the “hazardous air pollutants” are even more toxic. Section 112 of the Clean Air Act designates 187 hazardous pollutants, many of which are carcinogens. On January 5, 2022, EPA announced that they are adding 1-bromopropane – the first chemical the agency has added to the list in 30 years. 1- bromopropane is used as a component in plastics and other petrochemicals including dry-cleaning formulations, foam furniture cushions, and lubricants. It is a known carcinogen as well as a neurological and reproductive toxicant. Scientists have known about its unequivocal neurotoxicity to humans since around 2004 and about its carcinogenicity since 2006. Other air pollutants such as PFAS should be added to the list as well.
What are the Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) Standards?
The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 require the EPA to set technology-based standards for major sources of hazardous air contaminants and for certain area sources. The so-called major sources are stationary sources that emit 10 tons per year or more of a single hazardous air pollutant or 25 tons per year or more of a combination of hazardous air pollutants. These facilities must install pollution control equipment and keep pollution releases below particular thresholds. Section 112 establishes the degree of emissions reduction that EPA deems achievable, taking into consideration cost and other factors. These standards are commonly referred to as "maximum achievable control technology" or "MACT" standards.
Here is a Congressional Research Service explanation of the MACT standards:
“EPA is required to set standards for sources of the listed pollutants that achieve “the maximum degree of reduction in emissions” taking into account cost and other non-air-quality factors. These MACT standards for new sources “shall not be less stringent than the most stringent emissions level that is achieved in practice by the best controlled similar source” (Clean Air Act Section 112(d)(3)). The standards for existing sources may be less stringent than those for new sources, but must be no less stringent than the emission limitations achieved by either the best performing 12% of existing sources (if there are more than 30 such sources in the category or subcategory) or the best performing 5 similar sources (if there are fewer than 30). Existing sources are given three years following promulgation of standards to achieve compliance, with a possible one-year extension; additional extensions may be available for special circumstances or for certain categories of sources.”
What are the Generally Available Control Technology (GACT) Standards?
For “area sources,” those which do not meet the “major” quantity thresholds, EPA may elect to impose far more lenient standards, known as Generally Available Control Technology or GACT.
These standards apply to emissions from the many smaller sources such as gas stations or dry cleaners, some of which release extremely toxic chemicals but not on the scale of 10 or more tons per year. Collectively (and in many cases, individually) these facilities emit significant quantities. Some of the pollutants are extremely noxious no matter the amount.
Many of the GACT standards are quite basic provisions, like asking facilities to follow the instruction manual on the equipment, or to limit the hours per day of emissions. Other times, they may be fairly specific, like “do not discharge more than .25 lbs of chromium per thousand tons of glass in a gas-fired glass-melting furnace.” But without monitoring, reporting, and enforcement, the standards set a very low bar with which to comply.
What was “once in, always in?"
Sometimes when industries adhere to the MACT standards, their emissions fall below the threshold levels (the 10 tons per year per pollutant or 25 tons per combination). But “once in, always in” had been the rule since 1995. Once a facility has crossed the pollution threshold and emitted more than the threshold amounts, it must continue to use the maximum achievable control technology. In other words, the rule locks in MACT standards for the lifetime of those facilities, even if they reduce their emissions.
This once-in, always-in rule was reversed by the Trump Administration in October, 2020 to ease costs for industrial facilities. EPA started allowing ‘major sources’ of hazardous air pollutants to reclassify as an ‘area source’ after limiting emissions in a single year. This is enormously consequential. In dropping out of the MACT standards, facilities no longer have to control pollution nor even monitor their emissions. And without data on what they are releasing, there is no way to get back into the MACT standards. Thus, the rule ought to be called, “once out, always out.”
The Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and Moms Clean Air Force fought against this new loophole. In the words of EDF:
“EDF evaluated information provided by EPA on almost 1,600 facilities located in 48 states – and estimated that these facilities could increase hazardous air pollution by as much as 480% under the new policy, discharging over 49 million pounds of additional hazardous air pollution per year. Many of these facilities are located in heavily populated industrial areas in states like Texas, California, Louisiana, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio...The Air Toxics Loophole would disproportionately affect low-income communities, communities of color, and vulnerable populations.”
The Biden EPA has not fixed this loophole, and it remains uncertain whether it will choose to do so. EPA must continue to hear from people that this loophole must be closed immediately.
Is there an “ample margin of safety?”
While the first stage of air-toxics regulation is technology based (the MACT standards), the second stage is risk-based. EPA must review any public health risks that have not been eliminated by the MACT standards. Congress or EPA must then set emissions standards that eliminate these residual risks and that offer an “ample margin of safety.” The Act requires EPA to review, and revise as necessary, the emission standards for a source category -- at least once every eight years.
Section 112 states that, “If standards promulgated pursuant to subsection (d) of this section and applicable to a category or subcategory of sources emitting a pollutant (or pollutants) classified as a known, probable or possible human carcinogen do not reduce lifetime excess cancer risks to the individual most exposed to emissions from a source in the category or subcategory to less than one in one million, the Administrator shall promulgate standards under this subsection for such source category.” 42 US Code § 7412 (f)2
The statute does not elaborate on how EPA should set these standards, and with what level of protection. In NRDC v. EPA (2008), the DC Circuit Court examined the ambiguous instructions for these second-stage risk-based standards. The court upheld EPA’s use of a 100 in 1 million excess lifetime cancer risk for the most exposed individual, which is based on the EPA’s 1989 benzene rule limiting benzene emissions from several source categories. (EPA generally assumes that lifetime means 70 years of exposure.) The court also upheld EPA’s inclusion of cost considerations in setting risk-based standards.
Other ambiguities in the Clean Air Act have been litigated as well, with more lawsuits underway. Petitioners have questioned, among other things, the definition of major source, the extent to which costs are to be taken into account at the various stages of regulation, and the designation of greenhouse gases as air pollutants that endanger public health and welfare.
A helpful report from the Congressional Research Service on historical court decisions shaping EPA decision-making under the Clean Air Act.
Does EPA update the Hazardous Air Pollutant Standards every eight years, as required by the Clean Air Act?
As described above, Section 112 of the Clean Air Act requires a two-stage process to address emissions of hazardous air pollutants from stationary sources.
(1)EPA must identify categories of major sources and issue technology-based MACT standards for each.
(2)Every eight years, EPA must conduct a technology review (assessing the MACT standards in light of developments and practices, processes, and control technologies) and a residual risk review (evaluating the risk to public health remaining after application of the MACT standards), and revise the standards, if necessary, to provide an ample margin of safety to protect public health or to prevent, taking into consideration costs, energy, safety, and other relevant factors, and adverse environmental effect.
In practice, EPA is far behind in its reviews. The EPA Office of Inspector General found that as of November 1, 2021, the EPA has not conducted 93 (out of 169) residual risk and technology reviews or recurring eight-year technology reviews that are needed to revise standards to protect the public from air toxics emitted by stationary sources.
What are New Source Performance Standards, and why is EPA exempting the emissions from startup, shutdown, and malfunction?
The Clean Air Act (section 111) includes New Source Performance Standards for categories of “new and modified stationary sources of air pollution.”
Similar to what is in the Clean Water Act, these new-source standards aim to establish technology-based standards that are uniform between states, thus preventing the states from engaging in a “race to the bottom” in wooing new industry with minimalist pollution requirements. The standards establish maximum emission levels for new or expanded major stationary sources. Allowable levels are determined by the best system of emission reduction (BSER) “adequately demonstrated,” and taking costs into account.
The New Source Performance Standards limit the amounts that facilities can release of certain harmful air pollutants, such as particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, hydrogen sulfide, dioxins/furans, fluorides, and sulfuric acid mist. The rules apply to large-scale industrial activities including, among others, chemical manufacturing, petroleum refining, oil and gas production, fuel combustion, ferrous metals processing, and battery manufacturing.
Several aspects of the New Source Review program regulations leave unanswered questions. For example, it is not clear what sort of alterations or upgrades count as modifications, as opposed to routine maintenance. This has led to significant litigation.
In practice, EPA has radically diminished the implementation of Clean Air Act requirements for new sources by carving into its regulations shocking loopholes for startup, shutdown, and malfunction/maintenance events. In September 2022, Earthjustice submitted a petition to EPA Administrator Regan on behalf of multiple fenceline groups. https://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/files/ssm_caa_111_petition_to_epa_9_13_22.pdf
The petition calls for EPA to stop allowing industrial sources to emit unlimited amounts of toxic air pollutants during the hours or sometimes weeks it takes to turn operations on or off.
Specifically, EPA has inserted into its regulations blanket exemptions from the standards during startup, shutdown, malfunction and maintenance events, including during natural disasters such as hurricanes. This is contrary to the plain language of the Act which calls for continuous application of the emissions standards. At least 23 subsections in the EPA regulations contain unlawful loopholes allowing polluters to emit air pollution without consequence during startup, shutdown, and malfunction/ maintenance events. Often these emissions far exceed the toxic pollution levels during normal operations, endangering the health of people working at or living in the vicinity of such facilities. Most of the neighboring communities are low-wealth and communities of color.
According to the petitioners, “These ‘excess emissions’ events that occur during SSM periods are ‘frequent, large in magnitude, last from a few hours to several days (or even weeks) and can exceed a facility’s routine annual emissions.’ Texas, for example, experiences excess emissions events involving release of over 10 tons of a criteria pollutant on a daily basis. In 2020, Texas facilities reported 2,980 breakdown or malfunction air pollution events, from which over 46 million pounds of air pollution were emitted.”
The effects on workers, children and families can be devastating, from asthma attacks to cancers.
What is the Miscellaneous Organic Chemical (MON) Rule?
The Miscellaneous Organic Chemical Manufacturing (known as MON) source category residual risk and technology rule was adopted in 2003 and never revised. The MON regulates toxic air emissions from manufacturing processes located at major sources but not covered by other rules. This includes process vents, storage tanks, equipment leaks, wastewater streams, transfer racks, and heat exchange systems in over 200 chemical plants nationwide. The plants emit over 7,400 tons of toxic pollutants per year including at least 2000 tons of ethylene oxide. Other emissions from these sources include such hazardous pollutants as 1,3-butadiene, benzene, formaldehyde, and toluene.
Essentially the MON is the Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standard for these processes, and like other Clean Air Act technology standards, it was supposed to be updated every eight years. It subjects neighboring communities to a 200-in-a-million cancer risk, twice the level that EPA deems “acceptable.” The MON rules allow periodic, high-level, uncontrolled releases without monitoring. States with MON plants include Texas, Louisiana, West Virginia, Illinois and South Carolina.
EPA was required by federal law to update the MON standards by 2014, but failed to deliver. In 2017 Earthjustice litigated on behalf of affected communities; the court ordered EPA to review and update the MON Rule.
Fast forward to March 2020: Earthjustice filed detailed comments explaining why EPA must (1) strengthen the proposed rule to eliminate all unacceptable risk and provide an ample margin of safety; (2) make all “necessary” revisions, including taking into account developments such as fenceline monitoring; and (3) not finalize the proposed unlawful free passes to pollute for pressure relief devices and flares. The EPA rejected Earthjustice’s requests in its final rule of August 2020.
In October, 2020, Earthjustice sued EPA demanding reconsideration of the final rule and for a reconsideration rulemaking to strengthen the standards. Earthjustice made this request on behalf of RISE St. James, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), Air Alliance Houston, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Inc., Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, Sierra Club, Environmental Integrity Project, and Union of Concerned Scientists.
EPA also received four petitions from chemical industry groups. On February 4, 2022, EPA published in the Federal Register a proposed reconsideration of the final rule addressing two of the issues raised in the petitions (EPA stated that it is studying the other issues raised in the petitions and may issue further reconsiderations in future).
In its reconsideration, the agency addresses two specific issues raised by the American Chemistry Council, Huntsman Petrochemical, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality: (1) the use of the EPA's 2016 Integrated Risk Information System value for ethylene oxide in assessing cancer risk for the source category and (2) the use of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) risk value for ethylene oxide as an alternative risk value to the EPA's IRIS value.
Essentially the industry petitioners were arguing that the EPA should use the Texas CEQ's alternative risk value for ethylene oxide instead of the EPA's 2016 IRIS value for ethylene oxide. The Texas risk value for ethylene oxide is 2000 times more lenient than the EPA risk value. Texas used a different statistical model and focused on mortality rather than incidence (as noted earlier, incidence is a more telling endpoint) and they excluded women from their analysis – specifically, all lymphoid cancers in women, and all breast cancer as an endpoint. The EPA assessed all of the arguments raised. They disagree with petitioners on both matters and are proposing to reaffirm their decision to use the IRIS ethylene oxide assessment in the 2020 MON final rule.
See this document for a more thorough explanation:
What is the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturing Industry (SOCMI) category of industrial polluters?
SOCMI stands for Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturing Industry. On a parallel track to the MON litigation, Earthjustice and other groups have been litigating over SOCMI, a regulated category of industry sources of hazardous air pollutants. The SOCMI plants include large emitters of ethylene oxide, chloroprene, and other hazardous air pollutants. Most of the plants are in Louisiana and Texas; others are in West Virginia, Illinois and Ohio.
As with MON, the SOCMI regulations are supposed to be updated every 8 years. But EPA has not reviewed and updated the emissions standards in more than 15 years. Seven community and advocacy groups sued in December 2020. Earthjustice represents Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services; California Communities Against Toxics; Louisiana Environmental Action Network; Rise St. James; and Sierra Club. The Environmental Integrity Project is representing itself.
This initial suit was followed by a May, 2021 report from the EPA Office of Inspector General criticizing the EPA’s failure to protect communities from ethylene oxide and chloroprene emissions. That report urged the agency to update the technology-based and residual risk standards for these plants.
On February 24, 2022, EPA entered into a consent decree that requires the agency to begin a new rulemaking in 2022 and to issue a new final rule by spring 2024. Community groups are urging EPA to require fenceline monitoring and to remove the “malfunction loopholes” that enable companies to circumvent the regulations.
What is the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS)?
Many Clean Air Act discussions make reference to the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), so here is some background.
The EPA IRIS program plays a key role in identifying the toxicity values for human health effects resulting from chronic exposure to chemicals. The program tries to pinpoint the dose-response relationships between chemical exposures and human health effects. (Sometimes this is tricky as there is no safe level.) The values that IRIS comes up with in its assessments are supposed to help set national standards for toxic air contaminants under section 112 of the Clean Air Act, and are also important for Superfund cleanups and enforceable levels under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
An investigation by The Intercept has found that the EPA IRIS program lags decades behind in getting the latest science into EPA chemical risk assessments. As a result, permits for industrial facilities are commonly based on outdated science.
Despite the backlog, however, IRIS is regularly under attack by the chemical industry since it is the only division of the EPA that independently assesses the toxicity of industrial chemicals.
In 2018, President Trump appointed the former director of policy and regulatory affairs for Koch Industries to lead EPA’s Office of Research and Development, the division that includes IRIS. Koch owns Georgia-Pacific, a major manufacturer of formaldehyde, and for years disputed the chemical’s link to leukemia, and lobbied against formaldehyde’s designation as a carcinogen. Under the Koch leadership, EPA dropped plans to study formaldehyde and eight other chemicals (out of 16 assessments proposed by staff.) IRIS is finally carrying out the formaldehyde review.
What is the Chemical Safety Board?
The federal government has an independent, non-regulatory agency called the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board that investigates industrial chemical incidents and unplanned catastrophic releases. The Board conducts root cause investigations and makes recommendations to OSHA, EPA, labor groups, and others, often focusing on deficiencies in safety management systems.
Unfortunately, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has its own challenges, as described in a September, 2022 article in Chemical and Engineering News:
“The agency has been struggling for a while. For more than a year, the CSB has not initiated a new accident investigation. It has a backlog of 17 incomplete investigations; one is 6 years old. It also has merely nine dedicated incident investigators—the heart of the agency—less than half its past high. The total number of staff is 29…. The agency employed more than 40 people before the presidency of Donald J. Trump, who tried three times to eliminate it but was thwarted by Congress. The board lacks three of five board members. Staff morale has tanked.”
These deficiencies are supported in a review by the EPA Office of Inspector General, as well as in prior assessments by the US Government Accounting Office (GAO).
For an example of CSB’s work, here is the Chemical Safety Board’s animated re-creation of a 2018 ethylene release and fire at Kuraray America in Pasadena, Texas (dated 21 December 2022).
Are state agencies protecting people from toxic air pollution?
State air toxics programs vary wildly in their oversight and monitoring of hazardous air pollutants from industrial facilities. ProPublica cites a comparison from 2007 that found that Louisiana’s standards are among the least protective. For example, its benzene standard was more than twice as lenient as the Texas standard, which was over 30 times more lenient than that of Massachusetts. The paper found that some states like Connecticut and New York regulate all sources of hazardous air pollution, whereas other states like Louisiana choose to keep an eye on only the major polluters.
More recent reports suggest further weaknesses in state regulatory programs. A report by the Environmental Integrity Project found that the Texas legislature cut funding for pollution-control programs by 35 percent between 2008 and 2018 despite a 41 percent increase in the state’s overall budget during that period. And in 2017 a Texas Tribute investigation found that during the prior year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had fined fewer than one percent of cases in which companies had emitted more than the permissible amounts of toxic pollutants. The environmental watchdog Earthworks filed more than 140 complaints of industrial emissions violations between 2015 and 2020 and rarely heard back. Most cases were never investigated, and only 17 (one out of every 8) resulted in any type of enforcement action by the TEQ Commission or the Texas Railroad Commission.
Most counties in Texas rely on the state commissions to enforce environmental regulations. An exception is Harris County, which includes the greater Houston area. Harris County is home to the largest concentration of petrochemical facilities in the country and has its own enforcement unit. The county attorney’s office has a dedicated environmental crimes unit to help increase environmental monitoring in the Houston area.
But Houston and other Texas localities are stymied in their ability to fine or seek civil or criminal penalties against violators. Not only does the state cap damages against polluters, but it can terminate local actions. Houston tried to enforce toxic air pollution rules on its own, starting in 2007, but, after a prolonged legal fight, the Texas Supreme Court struck down the rules in 2016. The following year the Texas legislature passed a law allowing the Texas CEQ and the attorney general’s office to intervene in any civil actions brought by local authorities, thereby barring any type of civil penalty.
How Texas restricts localities’ efforts to protect their health and to take action against petrochemical plants is similar to the state’s control over fracking rules. When the city of Denton tried to outlaw fracking within its boundaries in 2014, the Texas Legislature passed a law that prohibits local governments from banning drilling or passing any restriction that isn’t “commercially reasonable.” Texas localities face expensive court battles if they try to curb oil and gas drilling within their own borders.
When the French company Total requested a “permit by rule” from the state environmental agency to drill and frack seven new wells at Rocking Horse, Texas, the Texas DEQ wrote back in granting permission and adding, “Be advised no review has been done by TCEQ to verify that the site meets the requirements of the permit by rule.”
The Texas CEQ also adopted a 10-year plan that includes no new emissions control measures to control haze. The commissioners argue that under the federal Clean Air Act, they do not have to consider human health in setting the standards.
The Environmental Protection Agency
Who is the Environmental Protection Agency actually protecting?
EPA has a long track record of protecting the commercial entities and communities best positioned to protect themselves, while turning a blind eye to lower income people and communities of color. This is true at every stage of the petrochemical value chain, from the fracking to the cracking to the incineration. It is the underprivileged, overburdened communities that bear the brunt of the toxic pollution. EPA has not been there to protect those who need it the most.
SPOTLIGHT: Ethylene oxide emissions in an educated white Chicago suburb and in a low wealth Louisiana Black community
The Intercept compared the EPA response to ethylene oxide emissions in an economically comfortable white Chicago suburb and in majority-Black low-wealth St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana. https://theintercept.com/2019/02/24/epa-response-air-pollution-crisis-toxic-racial-divide/ A Tale of Two Toxic Cities: The EPA’s Bungled Response to an Air Pollution Crisis Exposes a Toxic Racial Divide
Here is a summary of what happened:
When the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) assessment determined that ethylene oxide is carcinogenic to humans (previously it was designated a “probable” carcinogen) and is 30 times more hazardous than previously believed, EPA used that new safety information to calculate the health risks posed by air pollution, to be included in the August, 2018 National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA). This document assesses the air toxics risk for each census tract in the United States.
With the new ethylene oxide data from the IRIS assessment, the EPA’s numbers shot above the acceptable cancer risk levels in 109 census tracts. But EPA did not rush to regulate the carcinogens and to limit the emissions. Nor did it notify the communities of its findings, or take steps to shut down the polluters.
Even though the EPA quantifies the threat to each tract, it offers no path to remedy the problems. When they find out about the data, residents and local legislators can try to use it to take steps (like setting emissions limits, demanding monitoring and access to the results, or closing factories), if they have the time and resources. But in most cases the locals are vastly overpowered by the politicians, the companies, and the chemical lobby. Sometimes people who speak up are disparaged and belittled, or their lives are threatened.
Among the census tracts found to have elevated cancer risk (over 100 excess deaths per million people exposed) in the 2018 NATA assessment were seven census tracts in DuPage County, Illinois and neighboring Lake County. This is a well-to-do, highly educated, three-quarters white suburb southwest of Chicago. Less than a half-mile from residential homes, the Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook had been releasing dangerous amounts of ethylene oxide for the past 34 years, using it to sterilize medical equipment, pharmaceuticals and food.
EPA was very much aware of the demographics, and began addressing Willowbrook’s ethylene oxide problem long before it issued the public NATA report. Here are some of the details. Suffice it to say, government officials worked feverishly to address the issue:
In February 2018, six months before the national air toxics report was released, EPA staff began meeting with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a division of the Centers for Disease Control, to discuss the risks from ethylene oxide in Willowbrook. In May, the EPA began sampling the air near the Sterigenics plant. In June, staff from headquarters began providing technical support to its regional office and reviewing a permit application to install pollution controls in the plant. And by July, that equipment was successfully installed. Soon thereafter, the federal agency oversaw stack tests to make sure the equipment was functioning properly.
In August, the day before the national air toxics report was released to the public, the ATSDR published an evaluation of the potential health impacts of ethylene oxide from the plant in Willowbrook, per EPA’s request. The report recommended “that Sterigenics take immediate action to reduce EtO emissions at this facility.”
Local officials were notified about the pollution the same day the national air toxic report was published, and many government representatives attended the public meeting about the ethylene oxide the following week. In addition to staff from EPA headquarters and its regional office, representatives of the ATSDR, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and the DuPage County Health Department were on hand to address locals’ concerns, as were two members of Congress representing the area, a state senator, Willowbrook’s mayor, and the village’s trustees.
When they found out about the toxic emissions, residents were outraged and angry. They were disgusted that they had not been informed about the pollution as soon as the agency’s staff had learned of it, and the EPA’s solicitousness did not quell the uproar. The agency dispatched its top officials to deal with the crisis. In November, acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler met with Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and two of the state’s congressional representatives to discuss Willowbrook’s ethylene oxide problem. That month, the chief of the EPA’s office of Air and Radiation, Bill Wehrum, went to Willowbrook to answer residents’ questions and assure them that the agency was considering more stringent limits on ethylene oxide. Wehrum also wrote to Durbin, Duckworth, then-Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, as well as three of the state’s congressional representatives to assure them that “the Agency shares your concerns and is taking actions to provide certainty to the residents of Willowbrook.”
Willowbrook community members were rightly upset. And since many of the residents are lawyers, they were able to enlist seven law firms to explore litigation against Sterigenics. The village of Willowbrook paid for its own independent testing for the chemical. Local reporters helped ensure a steady stream of press attention from the Chicago Tribune and other outlets. With the help of state lawmakers and politicians in Washington, DC, the town of Willowbrook ultimately succeeded in shuttering the Sterigenics facility.
While EPA was busy showering attention on Willowbrook, the agency’s own air toxics assessment had shown that eight less affluent, less white communities in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas, Puerto Rico, and West Virginia faced an even greater risk of cancer from ethylene oxide. Some also faced elevated risks from chloroprene and other chemicals. But EPA did virtually nothing in these other communities.
In St. John the Baptist parish in Louisiana, for example, Evonik Materials makes the chemicals that go into cosmetics, and in the process releases ethylene oxide into neighboring communities. Residents of 12 census tracts breathe levels above the EPA’s 100 excess cancers in a million standard. The most highly affected area in St. John the Baptist has a cancer risk from ethylene oxide of 317 per million (this is in addition to their chloroprene exposures), as compared with 251 per million in the highest tract in DuPage County, Illinois. Unlike in Willowbrook, the residents of St. John also breathe 44 other carcinogenic industrial pollutants including decades of chloroprene from the Denka-Dupont facility. The excess cancer risk is 1,505 per million (more than 15 per 10,000), the highest risk in the country.
Meanwhile in St. Charles, Louisiana, the Dow Chemical Union Carbide facility is responsible for the highest risk of cancer from ethylene oxide in the nation, 710 excess cancers per million people, according to the EPA’s air toxics report -- almost three times the risk in the most polluted parts of Illinois. Yet, as with St. John, EPA ignored St. Charles.... no alerts to the communities about their elevated risks, no special visits, no rush to install air monitors, no pollution control technologies, no special websites, no meetings with government officials, nothing.
Compounding the difficulties for Louisiana’s fenceline communities is the indifference and sometimes even hostility offered by the state’s own political leaders and media. Unlike in Illinois, in Louisiana it is considered too politically sensitive to advocate for the closure of Denka or other facilities, so community activists are only asking for adherence to stricter standards. Despite the submissiveness and humility of the asks (please expose us to lesser amounts of the carcinogens), local health advocates are nonetheless cast as pariahs. So are outsiders who express concern. When Presidential hopeful Cory Booker visited St. John the Baptist parish, Louisiana’s main newspaper The Advocate (based to the north, in Baton Rouge) ran an editorial chastising him for criticizing the polluters.
A Tale of Two Toxic Cities: The EPA’s Bungled Response to an Air Pollution Crisis Exposes a Toxic Racial Divide
Are the state of Louisiana and the EPA protecting the health and civil rights of people at the Denka/Dupont facility in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana?
The circumstances surrounding the Denka facility (formerly Dupont) in the town of Reserve in St. John the Baptist parish, Louisiana highlight the multiple failures of federal and state regulations and the racist, classist ways in which this country treats those living in the petrochemical sacrifice zones. As noted, this is the town with the highest cancer risks in the country from toxic air pollutants. Despite years of community complaints, EPA never paid much attention to the community, and the Louisiana secretary of environmental quality, Chuck Carr Brown, a former industry consultant, made belittling remarks about Concerned Citizens of St. John.
In 2019, the EPA Deputy Regional Administrator for EPA Region 6 (based in Dallas, TX), David Gray, acknowledged that he doubted EPA would ever set a legally enforceable standard for chloroprene. He suggested that since Denka is currently the only source of chloroprene in the US, EPA would not use its limited time and resources on this singular source.
On May 6, 2021, Earthjustice, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Concerned Citizens of St. John submitted a formal petition to EPA on behalf of Concerned Citizens of St. John. The petition addresses the 1,505-in-a-million cancer risk, based on EPA’s own data, and the chloroprene levels 8,000 times the cancer risk level set by EPA in 2010. The petition calls on EPA to create an emergency action plan to protect residents from the carcinogenic releases of chloroprene and ethylene oxide. It faults the agency for failing to protect public health in St. John from toxic air pollution, for failing to follow through on the 2016 action plan to mitigate the dangers, and for weakening air monitoring for chloroprene and ethylene oxide while allowing the health emergency to become more dire. It highlights the EPA’s failure to protect children, and the local government’s refusal to relocate the fifth ward elementary school out of harms’ way.
On that same day in May, the EPA Office of Inspector General, the agency’s own internal watchdog, issued a report criticizing the EPA’s failure to protect communities from these carcinogens. The report urged EPA to use the full extent of its authority to curb ethylene oxide and chloroprene emissions in St. John Parish and nationwide.
Fast forward to November 2021, when EPA Administrator Regan embarked on his “Journey to Justice Tour,” in which he met with citizens’ groups and local leaders in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. At the Denka facility, Administrator Regan promised fenceline monitoring as well as from-the-air monitoring, among other things, and he wrote a personal letter to Denka’s CEO urging him to reduce emissions. Administrator Regan’s tour led to promises for unannounced inspections at non-compliant facilities and increased air pollution monitoring around some of the large emitters.
On January 20, 2022, Earthjustice and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, on behalf of Concerned Citizens of St. John and Sierra Club, filed a 77-page complaint to the EPA under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The complaint alleges civil rights violations by Louisiana state agency grantees (the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the Louisiana Department of Health) in St. John the Baptist Parish. The groups note that the agencies have failed to control toxic air pollution and mitigate its harm, and for years have dismissed the health concerns raised by this majority Black community. Here is the heart of the complaint:
“LDEQ has violated Title VI and EPA’s implementing regulations by: (1) failing to review
the permit renewal applications submitted by the neoprene production facility (Denka Performance Elastomer LLC or “Denka”) and to determine whether to renew and strengthen those permits; (2) failing to conduct the public notice and comment process required by Louisiana and federal law for permit renewal applications; and (3) failing to control hazardous air pollution from Denka and other air toxics sources as needed to protect St. John residents from disproportionate, adverse impacts from this pollution. LDH has violated Title VI and EPA’s implementing regulations by: (1) failing to provide the public with necessary information on the health threats of air pollution from Denka and nearby sources, and (2) failing to make necessary recommendations to all relevant government agencies and communities on ways to reduce and prevent exposure to hazardous chemicals from these sources, such as recommending the relocation of students at the disproportionately Black Fifth Ward Elementary School. Additionally, LDEQ and LDH have both failed to timely and transparently fulfill the terms of an EPA grant awarded to determine if Denka’s hazardous air pollutant emissions have caused higher instances of cancer in St. John.”
The EPA is conducting an ongoing investigation, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, into complaints that Louisiana environmental agencies discriminated on the basis of race against Black residents living in near Denka and throughout the region.
Despite all this attention and study, the situation on the ground remains dire.
NEW UPDATE on Feb. 28, 2023: The US Department of Justice sued Denka and DuPont to compel the companies to significantly reduce the toxic chloroprene emissions. This is a victory for Concerned Citizens of St. John Parish. We are urging the DOJ and EPA to proceed as expeditiously as possible in forcing the companies to bring down their toxic pollution.
EPA should conduct new residual risk and technology reviews for chloroprene- and ethylene-oxide emitting source categories to protect human health
What was the Journey to Justice Tour?
In November 2021, President Biden’s EPA Administrator Michael Regan (the former southeast regional director for EDF) embarked on a “Journey to Justice Tour.” He traveled to Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas to meet with citizens’ groups and local leaders. He visited some of the most underserved and overburdened frontline communities, who welcomed his show of interest and hoped that EPA might finally step up to the plate.
On January 26, 2022, Administrator Regan announced steps EPA would take to follow up on his trip. He listed several ways that EPA would address the health and safety risks in the communities he had visited. He emphasized that the Administration is putting environmental justice front and center in its climate agenda.
The measures identified by Mr. Regan include:
- Alerting residents about the $20 million in grants available in the American Rescue Plan to enhance local air monitoring for pollutants, and encouraging communities to apply for these funds.
- Purchasing $600,000 in mobile equipment to monitor air pollution in Cancer Alley.
- Strengthening the enforcement of regulations using monitoring data from the ground and from the sky.
- Ordering the agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance to conduct surprise inspections at facilities suspected of illegal emissions, including those in Mossville where Administrator Regan said he would enlist EPA’s air quality monitoring airplane to track pollutants from above.
- Ordering continuous air monitoring around the Sasol facility near Lake Charles, and noting that EPA had issued a notice of potential violation due to risk management violations a year earlier.
- Ordering the Denka plant to install monitors around its facility in St. John the Baptist parish, and sending a personal letter from Mr. Regan to Denka’s CEO expressing concern as a fellow parent, urging the company to protect the children and adults living nearby.
- Affirming support on the need for a more robust Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Formosa Plastics facility in St. James Parish. Mr. Regan said the study should include evaluating reasonable alternatives to the proposed action, the potential cumulative effects, and a public comment period.
- Reaffirming EPA’s peer-reviewed scientific assessment which concluded that ethylene oxide is far more toxic than previously understood. Mr. Regan suggested that EPA will formally reject the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s less protective risk value.
While many residents were heartened by the new level of interest in their plight, and the promises of additional monitoring, they could not help but ask, when will these steps be taken? Will monitoring data become publicly accessible? Will it compel EPA, DOJ, and state authorities to step in and stop the polluters? Will anyone be held accountable? If the Administration is aware of the dangers, why is it enabling the petrochemical companies to move full-speed ahead in building new plastics-making facilities?
Some residents are interested in relocating. Will the companies compensate them for their sickness, and pay for their relocation to a safe location? Relocation (and compensation) is a mixed blessing, of course, wiping whole towns off the map, as happened in Mossville, Morrisonville, Reveilletown, Sunrise and Diamond. Residents lose their neighborhoods and we all lose important chapters of our history – particularly when this means bulldozing away the towns founded by formerly enslaved people. At the same time, voluntary relocation and compensation can at least protect residents from the toxic air.
In EPA’s defense, the agency has had much to fix following the regulatory wreckage of the Trump years. And some of the problems run deeper than the current or prior Administration. In many instances, EPA’s backlog of overdue risk assessments and updated emissions standards lags by decades. Some of the delays result from funding shortfalls; others may be a consequence of the agency’s revolving door with the chemical industry.
This series in The Intercept documents chemical industry influence in the EPA toxic chemicals and pesticides programs: https://theintercept.com/series/epa-exposed/
What steps should the EPA be taking immediately?
Administrator Regan’s show of solidarity in the Journey to Justice Tour – and the recent EPA/DOJ litigation against Denka and DuPont – offer hope, but still, the Administration’s stance on petrochemicals has a piecemeal, whack-a-mole sort of feel. There is so much that the Biden Administration’s EPA could be doing to rein in the buildout of petrochemical infrastructure and to protect fenceline communities across the nation. The towns that Mr. Regan visited on his tour are facing extreme danger. There are hundreds of other communities that remain completely overlooked.
Moms Clean Air Force is calling on EPA to protect people from the petrochemical industry across the entire Gulf Coast, in the Ohio River Valley, and nationally. The scale of new petrochemical buildout is staggering, much of it in communities that have been disproportionally impacted by fossil fuel pollution to begin with. Every stage of the petrochemical value chain is toxic, from the fracking to the cracking to the incineration of the plastics.
Most immediately, we are asking the Biden Administration to stop deregulating major sources of air pollution. The following measures deserve immediate attention:
1. Pyrolysis and Gasification – also known as “advanced recycling,” “chemical recycling” and “molecular recycling”
For decades, the petrochemical lobbyists have been countering any pushback on the climate recklessness of plastics with industry fanfare about plastics recycling. But the industry lies are unraveling: most plastic cannot actually be recycled. Desperate for a way to get plastic waste out-of-sight, the industry is peddling a method of plastics incineration. They are calling it “advanced recycling” and fighting to exempt these plastic pyrolysis-and-gasification incinerators from the Clean Air Act. They are building these facilities in what are already some of the nation’s least privileged and most polluted neighborhoods.
During the Trump Administration, EPA proposed to remove pyrolysis and gasification facilities from the definition of “municipal waste combustion units” in the so-called “Other Solid Waste Incineration” rulemaking – even though, for nearly 30 years, these facilities have been regulated as solid waste incinerators under section 129 of the Clean Air Act.
Environmental justice and fenceline communities across the country have been urging EPA to continue regulating these heavily polluting facilities, but the Biden EPA has resisted any move to revoke the Trump proposal. Instead, EPA issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Pyrolysis and Gasification, stating that “the Agency believes that there is considerable confusion in the regulated community regarding the applicability of CAA section 129 to pyrolysis and gasification units.”
We are asking EPA to post a notice in the federal register affirming that pyrolysis and gasification are indeed a form of solid waste incineration and will continue to be regulated under section 129 of the Clean Air Act.
Meanwhile, the chemical industry trade association, American Chemistry Council (made up of Exxon, Dow, and other petrochemical giants) is trying to convince EPA and Congress to exempt pyrolysis and gasification facilities from the Clean Air Act – by reclassifying them as not incinerators -- so that these facilities can release unlimited amounts of dioxins and other air toxics without pollution controls, monitoring, or reporting requirements.
2. Stationary Turbines
Stationary combustion turbines are a type of internal combustion engine regulated under section 112 of the Clean Air Act.
These engines emit large amounts of hazardous air pollutants such as formaldehyde, toluene and benzene. This Clean Air Act “source category” covers hundreds of facilities including gas-fired power plants; turbines that move oil, gas, and petrochemicals through pipelines; and the large numbers of fossil fuel turbines at liquefied natural gas facilities.
For example, one liquified natural gas terminal in Corpus Christi, TX, includes 60 of these turbines.
A coalition of industry groups -- American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute, the American Public Power Association, the Gas Turbine Association, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association -- is asking for the entire source category to be delisted (released from the pollution control requirements) claiming that the volume of hazardous air pollutants they emit does not warrant pollution controls.
Moms Clean Air Force is supporting Earthjustice and the Sierra Club in urging the Biden EPA not to acquiesce to the petroleum industry demands given the extremely toxic air pollution emitted by these facilities and the potential harm to environmental justice communities. The proposed de-listing of this hazardous pollution source category does not satisfy the Clean Air Act’s de-listing test in 112(c)(9), and EPA has already made the finding that the cancer risk is over the rule’s 1-in-1-million threshold. We urge EPA to immediately deny the industry’s de-listing petition.
3. Once In, Always In
The Trump Administration finalized the Air Toxics Loophole, which enables any major source of hazardous air pollutants to get out of pollution control requirements by reclassifying itself as a smaller “area source.” The Trump loophole reversed a long-standing policy which held that once a source has been swept into the regulatory superstructure of the “major source categories” of the Clean Air Act, due to its emissions, from then on it would be covered by the requirements applicable to major sources. We are urging the EPA to close this loophole.
The Trump Administration proposed that if the pollution source fell below the threshold amount (10 tons of a single hazardous air pollutant (HAP), or 25 tons of combined HAPs) then the source would be able to exit the Clean Air Act pollution controls entirely. The problem is that once out of the controls, the monitoring and record keeping requirements on emissions disappear, so a facility can readily raise emissions and never again have to comply with the Clean Air Act. In other words, if there is ever a year in which an industrial source emits less than 10 tons of a single HAP or 25 tons of mixed HAPs, the facility gets out of air pollution requirements forevermore.
Note that for super-toxic HAPS like dioxin, ethylene oxide, hexavalent chromium, and formaldehyde, the threshold amounts that EPA has set are absurdly high to begin with, putting fenceline communities in grave danger even when “major source” quantities are not met.
4. Chemical Manufacturing Rules
The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing rules that would cut pollution at more than 200 of the largest, most toxic chemical and plastics manufacturing facilities. These heavy polluters are located across the US, with concentrations in the Houston Ship Channel; Cancer Alley, Louisiana; and the Ohio River Valley (including Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania).
Together these rules cover many of the highest risk chemical manufacturing facilities in the US.
The three critical air toxics rules that are up for review are called the Hazardous Organic NESHAPS (National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants) and the Groups 1 and 2 Polymer and Resin rules.
States with multiple heavy-emitters covered by these rules include Texas, Louisiana, Ohio, Kentucky, New York, Virginia, West Virginia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
The proposed rule includes fenceline monitoring for six toxic air pollutants:
- Ethylene oxide (damages the DNA of children and increases the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, myeloma, and lymphocytic leukemia)
- Benzene (causes leukemia and other blood-cancers and harms the reproductive system)
- Chloroprene (causes cancer and damages the liver, cardiovascular system, and immune system; extremely harmful to the children and adults who live near the Denka-DuPont facility in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana)
- Ethylene dichloride (impairs the nervous system, liver, kidneys, cardiovascular system, and reproductive system)
- 1,3-butadiene (linked to leukemia and other cancers, and to heart, lung, reproductive, and neurological problems), and
- Vinyl chloride (causes liver injury and liver cancer as well as neurologic and behavioral symptoms)
Moms are advocating for the strongest possible safeguards including:
- Removal of all exemptions for start-up, shutdown, and malfunction
- Robust precedent-setting community risk assessments
- Increased flare efficiency and monitoring
- Enhanced leak detections and repair protocols
- Enhanced process controls
- Fenceline monitoring for toxic chemicals
What other critical actions should the EPA be taking?
1. Ban vinyl chloride and PVC plastic.
Moms Clean Air Force is calling for a ban on vinyl chloride, which is used to make PVC plastic, also known as “vinyl.” Vinyl chloride is a known human carcinogen that causes liver cancer as well as leukemia, lymphoma, brain and lung cancers. Burning vinyl chloride produces dioxins and other carcinogens, chemicals that concentrate in breast milk and that are especially harmful to children, whose bodies are still developing. Ominously, the reproductive and developmental impacts and immune-system damage can show up decades later and in future generations.
Five of the train cars that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, in early February were carrying vinyl chloride. Some leaked and burned immediately. Norfolk Southern railway and the state authorities drained the remainder into a ditch, which they then set on fire — creating a gigantic toxic plume.
Moms Clean Air Force has launched a petition calling for a ban on vinyl chloride, and we will be campaigning on this issue at every opportunity. No neighborhood should have to go through the horrors experienced by East Palestine, all in the name of making toxic PVC plastic.
Less than a month before the Norfolk Southern derailment, in January, 2023, EPA rejected a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity to designate PVC waste plastic as a hazardous waste under RCRA. In its response to the petition, EPA suggested that the agency lacks the resources to follow through on such a decision. This new campaign takes a different approach – on the other end of the supply chain -- urging EPA to begin the process of banning vinyl chloride under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
2. Stop exempting startup, shutdown, and malfunction.
The Biden Administration has failed to fix the dozens of subsections in its own regulations that allow industrial polluters to emit unlimited amounts of toxic air pollutants during the hours or sometimes weeks it takes to turn operations on or off. Specifically, EPA has carved into its section 111 new source regulations of the Clean Air Act blanket exemptions from the standards during startup, shutdown, malfunction and maintenance events, including during natural disasters such as hurricanes. This is contrary to the plain language of the Act which calls for continuous application of the emissions standards. Often these emissions far exceed the toxic pollution levels during normal operations, endangering the health of people working at or living in the vicinity of such facilities. Most of the neighboring communities are low-income and communities of color. Moms Clean Air Force supports Earthjustice and fenceline communities’ petition urging EPA to fix its unlawful regulations.
2. Stop issuing permits for new and expanded petrochemical facilities.
The fossil fuel industry is on target to triple plastics production by 2060 -- not because we need all that extra plastic, but because single-use plastics are a lifeline for oil and gas companies determined not to let climate change and the promise of renewable energy cut into their profits. 2022 has been the biggest year in US history for the construction of new ethane cracker plastics-making facilities.
Moms Clean Air Force is calling on the Biden Administration to halt this vast plastics buildout, and to stop siting these gigantic fortresses amidst some of the nation’s most underserved communities, many on former slave plantations.
3. Lower the quantities at which pollution controls, monitoring, and reporting requirements kick in for hazardous air pollutants.
With the exception of the provisions for waste incineration, the Clean Air Act air toxics rules apply only to the very biggest sources of air pollution. The regulations distinguish between the “major” sources (those that emit 10 or more tons per year of a single hazardous air pollutant, or 25 tons per year of a combination of hazardous air pollutants) and any sources that emit less than these thresholds. The lesser-emitting facilities enjoy a pollution free-for-all, with almost no pollution control, monitoring, or reporting requirements. This is absurd.
In prior decades, not as much was known about all of the health effects from “small” amounts of dioxins, vinyl chloride, PFAS, hexavalent chromium, lead, mercury, or other air toxics, but by now researchers have shown just how dangerous it is to inhale even limited quantities of these extremely toxic industrial air pollutants. It is shocking that current air pollution rules allow any facility to emit 9.99 tons of a hazardous air pollutant (or 24.99 tons of a combination) in a single year and NOT install pollution controls.
4. Ban the use of PFAS and other ultra-toxic chemicals in oil and gas extraction.
In the fracking process, oil and gas companies are forcing down into the earth chemicals with extreme developmental and reproductive toxicity such as arsenic, benzene, cadmium, lead, formaldehyde, chlorine, and mercury. There is evidence that PFAS and other toxic chemicals are also used in the initial drilling and other phases of oil and gas extraction, but companies do not disclose this information. It is high time that the Biden EPA step in and (1) demand transparency about what chemicals are used at every stage in the process, and (2) prohibit the use of PFAS and other toxic chemicals in oil and gas drilling.
5. Require smokestack- and fenceline monitoring for benzene and other toxic chemicals at all petrochemical facilities.
It should not take litigation or a visit from Administrator Regan to get such monitoring in place. The Administration needs to invest in high-quality air monitors, not those that constantly break down. The findings need to be public, online, accessible and available in a timely manner -- not weeks or months later. The results should be actionable and should count for regulatory or enforcement purposes. Critically, EPA and state agencies cannot just sit on the results for some communities, as described in the damning expose, A Tale of Two Toxic Cities.
6. Pay attention to low-income communities and communities of color.
Protect all communities and especially environmental justice communities that have less resources and connections through which to make their cases heard. In many regions, people are not provided information about what they are breathing or drinking, and even if they find out there is little that they can do about it. Moreover, in places dominated by petrochemical interests, locals are often belittled and mocked for raising concerns. But the responsibility to protect communities and to ensure clean air and safe drinking water should not fall on those sickened by the petrochemical companies.
7. Take into account the cumulative risks from multiple chemicals and from multiple facilities located in proximity.
People living near dense industrial areas face overlapping risks from exposure to multiple hazardous air pollutants emitted by multiple facilities. The current practice of analyzing one chemical at a time, as if exposure happens in a vacuum, dramatically undercounts the dangers and disadvantages the low-wealth communities of color that face emissions from dozens and even hundreds of facilities at once.
7. Move back the cancer goalpost.
EPA’s current excess-cancer risk standard is 1 in 10,000. Essentially this means that EPA would consider it acceptable if 100 out of each million residents got cancer from each industrial air pollutant. EPA officials admit that the so-called acceptable level ought to be 100x lower, 1 in a million, but they moved the goalpost in 2008 given the high industrial air toxics risks across the nation. In practice, the risk Americans face is even higher, as 1 in 10,000 is the added risk from each chemical in isolation -- there is no requirement to consider cumulative exposures. Under the former 1 in a million standard, 74 million Americans are exposed to unacceptably high excess cancer risk from industrial air toxics.
EPA’s decision to lower the level of desired protection was essentially arbitrary. As reported by ProPublica, “The EPA adopted the 1 in 10,000 threshold based on a 1988 agency report that listed the probability of dying from unusual things like “ignition of clothing,” “venomous plants” or drowning, and then choosing a risk level roughly in the middle of the range.” Our science has evolved significantly since the 1980s; it is disingenuous for EPA to suggest that these risks are acceptable or that there is any margin of safety. And disturbingly, 109 census tracts face even greater risk than the 1 in 10,000 (100 in a million) standard.
8. Stop ignoring the workers.
Why doesn’t EPA try to safeguard the workers? Protection from harmful chemical exposures ought to start with those inside the facilities, whose allowable risk is sometimes a million times greater. OSHA’s 1 in 1000 standard for workers is way out of line with public health standards in other countries. Just because OSHA exists does not give EPA justification for ignoring worker health (EPA does not ignore water pollution just because there is a Fish and Wildlife Service). Some pollution-control devices required by EPA actually increase the concentrations inside the petrochemical facilities.
EPA officials say they leave worker protection to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, yet OSHA is even more hamstrung and enfeebled than EPA.
In the past half century, OSHA has set comprehensive standards for 19 chemical substances. Meanwhile the German equivalent of OSHA has set over 1000 such standards.
Moreover, OSHA has updated its worker protection standards for only three chemicals in the past 25 years. Each one of those updates took over a decade to complete. OSHA admits its standards are essentially useless and insufficient to protect worker health. The agency’s website offers a disclaimer: “OSHA recognizes that many of its permissible exposure limits (PELs) are outdated and inadequate for ensuring protection of worker health.”
9. Hold petrochemical companies to European standards – or higher.
Why does the US find it okay to expose workers, children, and whole communities to levels of pollution considered unimaginable in Europe? Why don’t companies adhere to the same standards on each side of the Atlantic? Admittedly this is hard to fix, given the powerful role of the oil, gas and petrochemical giants in the US regulatory system, but it is something that troubles us greatly.
10. Require petrochemical companies to adopt safer technologies.
EPA does not require facilities to replace lethal chemicals, processes and technologies with inherently safer alternatives, even when such alternatives are readily available and feasible. Moms Clean Air Force is urging EPA to require all high-risk industrial operations to assess the availability of safer technologies and to require implementation of the safer technologies identified – not simply documentation of their existence.
EPA recently proposed a rule that would require a few specific industrial sectors to conduct an evaluation of safer alternatives -- but only if the facilities are located within a mile of other facilities sharing the same industrial codes. EPA suggests it should be optional whether companies choose to implement the safer alternatives identified, even if using such extraordinarily dangerous substances as hydrogen fluoride (HF). Hydrogen fluoride is used as a catalyst in making high-octane gasoline. HF vapor clouds can sicken or kill workers and residents for miles around. EPA acknowledges that recognized safer alternatives are available and can be successfully implemented, yet the agency has not told companies to transition away from hydrogen fluoride.
11. Protect communities from extreme weather events such as the hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, heatwaves and fires that are becoming more frequent due to climate change.
When these so-called natural disasters hit, it is the communities and the local governments that foot the bill and suffer from the often-disastrous environmental impacts. The toxic pollution released during these disasters can have lifelong consequences for workers and communities. Adding to the dangers, disaster relief agencies ship in massive quantities of disposable plastic water bottles which are then burned onsite alongside plastics-dense storm debris in uncontrolled burn boxes. The petrochemical companies net billions or even tens of billions of dollars in profits without taking responsibility for the massive problems they help create.
11. Expose the false narrative of plastics recycling, and cease the export of discarded plastics refuse.
Most waste plastic is landfilled or burned, and very little is actually recyclable given the technical and economic challenges and the vast array of toxic chemicals that make up plastics. The current rate of plastics recycling in the US is a mere five percent, and that is likely an overestimate. Officially, US plastics exports count as recycling, but in reality, most exported plastic gets buried or incinerated. The biggest importers of discarded US plastic waste in 2021 were Malaysia, El Salvador, Hong Kong, Honduras, Mexico, Vietnam, Ecuador, Guatemala, Indonesia and Thailand.
12. Clamp down on waste incineration.
Waste incineration creates hazardous air pollution and toxic ash in the low-wealth majority Black and Brown neighborhoods where most of these facilities are located. Monitoring and regulation of municipal waste incinerators are inadequate to protect surrounding communities, and regulatory updates are long overdue. In the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, Congress directed the EPA to update incinerator emissions every five years. The latest update is now 15 years delinquent. Fenceline communities have waited through eight years of the Obama administration, four years under Trump, and two years of the Biden administration—and still don’t have updated air pollution rules to protect them from the dioxin, lead, and other toxic air pollution emitted by municipal waste incinerators.
Studies have found that waste incinerators also release PFAS into the air of surrounding communities. PFAS is widely used in plastics and is extremely toxic, even in minute quantities, yet it is not among the pollutants monitored and controlled under the Clean Air Act section 129 solid waste incinerator standards. This needs to be fixed.
In addition to the local air pollution, incineration of plastics has the highest climate impact of any sanctioned waste management practice. The fluoropolymers in textiles, insulation, and other plastics products in municipal waste incinerators have up to 10,000 times the global heating potential of carbon dioxide.
13. Support the development of an ambitious global plastics treaty.
Drafting of the plastics treaty began in March 2022, and the first Conference of Parties was held in November and December 2022 in Uruguay. Moms Clean Air Force is calling for an end to plastics pollution at every stage in the supply chain, from fossil extraction to petrochemical processing, manufacture, use, and disposal. The projected tripling of fossil fuel plastics production by 2060 will impose severe consequences on fence-line communities and will accelerate planetary heating. We support a cap on plastics production with clear timelines for phasing down petrochemical output, while shifting the world to alternative materials, products, and processes. We support full transparency on plastics feedstock, chemical constituents, and emissions, from cradle to grave, and the expedited phaseout of the most dangerous polymers (including fluoropolymers and chlorinated plastics such as PVC) and toxic chemical constituents (such as PFAS chemicals, UV-328, bisphenols, phthalates, brominated flame retardants, and chlorinated paraffins).
This memo outlines 10 measures that Moms supports to protect people, the environment, and the climate from plastics pollution:
There remain many contentious issues including the treaty rules of procedure, the outsized role of the petrochemical industry in the negotiations, and the question of global commitments and binding targets. In addition, there are also serious questions about the willingness of the US government negotiators to support a high-ambition global instrument.
Worker Health and Safety
Is anyone looking out for the workers?
The greatest risks from the petrochemical sector are those borne by workers -- the moms, dads, sons, daughters, and grandparents who spend their days in these loud, smelly, heavily contaminated factories, making the wages they need to take care of their families.
Workers’ exposures are often vastly more deadly than those faced by the surrounding communities. For other environmental laws, the government uses a 1-in-1-million standard for excess cancers, wherever possible. This is true, for example, in the Safe Drinking Water Act. In EPA’s Human Health Benchmarks for Pesticides the agency uses a risk range between 1 in a million and 1 in 10,000. In the Clean Air Act, 1-in-1-million is EPA’s aspirational standard, but in practice it has morphed into 100 in 1 million standard (1 in 10,000) for hazardous air pollutants, as discussed earlier.
In the 1980 Benzene case, however, the US Supreme Court said that the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) should reduce toxic chemical concentrations to a point where the excess risk level is between 1 in a thousand and 1 in a billion.
OSHA opted to go with the very bottom end, a 1 in 1,000 cancer risk. Such a standard would suggest that workers are exposed to a 10 to 1000 times greater risk than that faced by the community. In practice, the situation is much worse.
Here are some observations gleaned from the 2019 Congressional testimony of Adam Finkel, a professor at the University of Michigan. Previously he was an OSHA regional administrator and the OSHA director of health standards, and he also advised EPA on science and regulatory matters. He compared the roughly three million air samples taken by OSHA to concentrations measured or modeled by EPA in communities. He found that occupational exposures at chemical plants are commonly ten thousand and often one million times higher than what is found in the ambient environment.
“There is a reasonable belief that because workers are compensated and (ought to be!) informed about their risks before bearing them, they can face more risk than the general population—but a million times more?”
Finkel notes that even if OSHA actually followed its 1 in 1000 standard, this would be way out of line with other countries: “OSHA stops regulating at a risk level far above where EPA would normally start reducing risk. The OSHA “1 case of grave disease in 1000” goal is the highest risk level at which any public health agency anywhere in the world, to my knowledge, would contemplate declaring ‘mission accomplished.’”
Finkel argues that EPA can and should reduce exposures in these plants rather than rely on ill-fitting masks and end-stage pollution control devices like scrubbers. The terrible truth is that some pollution-control devices required by EPA actually increase the concentrations inside the petrochemical facilities. EPA ignores worker health, but Finkel says it ought to regard workers as its primary constituency.
“EPA does not ignore water pollution because Congress also created the Fish and Wildlife Service, and it shouldn’t ignore workers just because we also have an OSHA.”
Finkel notes that OSHA focuses almost entirely on safety rather than health. His analyses found that only 2 to 3 percent of its OSHA inspections address occupational health concerns, and that although OSHA has 19 modern exposure limits, workplace exposures remain vastly much higher. The agency regulates a “vanishingly small” fraction of the 84,000 chemicals that workers are exposed to. He notes that there are 50,000 premature deaths each year from occupational exposures.
While some regulators and politicians express disdain toward workers, it is important to emphasize that workers generally don’t have choices. It’s not as if they want to be exposed to toxic chemicals. People take horrific jobs to help them pay the bills and raise their families. Often, their children face elevated risks as well, including cancers, reproductive risks, and neuro-developmental disorders.
Finkel also points out that EPA uses a 10-fold safety factor for its non-carcinogen risk assessments but never for cancer. This is despite National Academy of Sciences recommendations to add a 25-fold factor to protect 95 percent of the population, not just someone of “average” susceptibility.
In addition to the issues raised in Finkel’s testimony, both EPA and OSHA largely ignore aggregate and cumulative risks and synergistic effects, assuming instead that each exposure is the only one. Sadly, this is far from the truth, given the vast array of toxic substances to which workers and communities are exposed.
Hearing on “Mismanaging Chemical Risks: EPA’s Failure to Protect Workers”
How do US health and safety standards compare with those in European countries?
The US and Europe have different approaches to protecting workers and communities from harmful emissions. Here are a few snapshots that illustrate some of the differences.
European regulators place far more emphasis on occupational health. In the US, 98 percent of inspections address only safety hazards, from emergency exits to falling ladders. As noted above, in the past half century OSHA has set comprehensive standards for 19 chemical substances. Meanwhile the German equivalent of OSHA has set over 1000 such standards.
The very same companies that follow relatively strict standards in Europe pollute heavily here in the US and lobby to keep worker protections and community standards to the bare minimum. The divergence is particularly extreme with states like Louisiana and Texas. For example, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s ethylene oxide standard allows concentrations of up to 1 microgram per cubic meter of air in communities near chemical plants. This is 50 times the maximum concentration advised by the EPA, enabling companies to expose residents to excess cancer risks at a level 30 times the EPA’s 1 in 10,000 standard.
ProPublica writes that, “As a result, BASF’s Geismar [Louisiana] plant emits more than nine times as much ethylene oxide as its larger plant that makes the same chemical in its hometown of Ludwigshafen, Germany. At that plant, companies licensed by German regulators conduct annual inspections to ensure that concentrations of the cancer-causing chemical at each emission point are below 0.5 milligrams per cubic meter — a rule designed to limit the pollutant’s spread into neighboring communities.”
Here is an interesting comparison of the rule-setting process in the US and in Europe:
“US environmental advocates say they are sidelined in the earliest stages of the EPA’s rulemaking process. To influence a rule, they often must sue the agency, alleging that its rule updates have failed to adequately protect the public’s health. By contrast, European environmental officials require advocacy organizations, trade groups and industrial engineers to work together to develop more protective standards for emissions-control technologies. Both the US and Europe require rules for those technologies to be reviewed every eight years, but the EPA often chooses not to update its rules, while European officials require that new and more protective standards are passed during each review.”
Why aren’t “accidents” accidental?
Pedestrian- and bicycle-safety advocates have for years been working behind-the-scenes to change the terminology and the mindset surrounding car crashes: most collisions are predictable and preventable occurrences. They are not “accidents.” Many news reporters have finally started speaking about “crashes” rather than “accidents.”
The same holds true for petrochemical releases. Unplanned incidents happen regularly (for example when equipment breaks down) and are, in fact, an expected part of the manufacturing process. But they don’t have to be, if regulators and companies make health and safety the priority. Basic safeguards such as stringent standards, thorough maintenance, training and empowerment of workers, monitoring and reporting, data transparency, enforcement, and the transition to safer materials and processes wherever possible, can go a long way toward preventing such “accidents.” They do not have to happen if safety is prioritized. Unfortunately, companies operating in US sacrifice zones consider such unplanned releases, fires, and explosions a cost of doing business. And the rare, token fines (commonly in the thousands of dollars) are at most a slap on the wrist.
Regulators rely on an honor system for reporting, so many incidents go unreported, and often – when informed -- state authorities do not even bother to investigate. It is not unusual for companies to have more than a hundred such “accidents” each year, though the public is normally not told, and the companies regularly claim “no impact” following release of thousands of pounds of benzene or other toxic chemicals. Workers are the most exposed.
Petition for Rulemaking to Eliminate Startup, Shutdown, and Malfunction Exemptions
in Clean Air Act Section 111 Regulations:
Disposal and Recycling Myths
How did we get stuck with all this plastic waste?
The petrochemical industry has been hugely successful in deflecting responsibility for the effects of their enterprise – including the air and water pollution and the climate impacts -- and saddling consumers, communities and waste management systems with the job of disposing of petrochemical waste.
In reality, there are no easy or satisfying answers to the question of how to get rid of plastic trash. Plastics last for centuries and are made of toxic and climate-heating chemicals.
Globally, the plastics industry generates over 390 million metric tons of plastic per year. According to some estimates, nearly half of the plastic produced is used to make single-use disposables. This amounts to massive quantities of waste plastics.
The hundreds of toxic chemicals that are combined with the hydrocarbon polymers in the plastics manufacturing process provide the functional and performance qualities that make plastic what it is. These additives include PFAS, phthalates, heavy metals, bisphenol A, flame retardants, pigments, and the ubiquitous, high volume UV stabilizer 328, identified as one of the world’s most toxic chemicals. The toxic components present problems at every step of the plastics value chain – including in disposal.
Is plastics recycling the answer?
Sadly, no, it is only a very partial solution.
Recycling is not the success story that many of us were led to believe, although it can work for colorless PET plastic #1 water bottles and HDPE plastic #2 milk jugs. So long as they are made from a singular type of polymer, not tinted, and free of food and beverages, such containers can once or twice be melted, filtered and molded into new bottles, or into items like carpets and park benches. The length of the polymer chains shortens each time the plastic is recycled, and thus the quality decreases (unlike recycling glass and metal, which can be done over and over without reducing the quality). Recyclers add virgin plastic to upgrade the quality of the “recycled” product, thus giving it a chance to compete against higher quality newly produced virgin plastic.
For most other plastics, recycling is technically complex and uneconomical. The plastic waste materials are chock-full of toxic substances, and commonly they are also contaminated by things like food and used motor oil and by other items from the waste stream. Moreover, there are so many different types of plastic with thousands of toxic-chemical variations, and each would need to be recycled separately. As former EPA Administrator Judith Enck and chemical engineer Jan Dell describe,
“The first problem is that there are thousands of different plastics, each with its own composition and characteristics. They all include different chemical additives and colorants that cannot be recycled together, making it impossible to sort the trillions of pieces of plastics into separate types for processing. For example, polyethylene terephthalate (PET#1) bottles cannot be recycled with PET#1 clamshells, which are a different PET#1 material, and green PET#1 bottles cannot be recycled with clear PET#1 bottles (which is why South Korea has outlawed colored PET#1 bottles.) High-density polyethylene (HDPE#2), polyvinyl chloride (PVC#3), low-density polyethylene (LDPE#4), polypropylene (PP#5), and polystyrene (PS#6) all must be separated for recycling.”
Complicating matters, more and more products incorporate multiple plastic polymers, each with different chemical additives and properties. For example, a candy wrapper or a chip bag might contain 10 different plastic films plus an aluminum layer that are impossible to separate. Other products combine plastics with paper or metal. Soda and beer cans have layers of plastic, while cardboard coffee cups include polypropylene plastic #5 sleeves.
The plastics industry does not design its products for recycling or re-use, and takes no responsibility for disposal. This description of plastics recycling is on the mark:
“Today, recycling is a flailing, failing system—and yet it is still touted as plastics’ panacea. No end-of-the- pipe fix can manage mass plastics’ volume, complex toxicity, or legacy of pollution, and the industry’s long-standing infractions against human health and rights.”
What if my product says it is recyclable or is stamped with a recycling symbol?
What look like triangular recycling symbols have become quite standard on the bottoms of many plastic products. And the word “recyclable” (or variations, such as toothpaste tubes that say, “Recycle Me!”) appears all over the place, even when the manufacturers know full well that consumers have no way to recycle their products.
The chemical industry lobbied for the use of the tiny plastic resin codes back in 1988, at a time of increasing public skepticism toward plastics. The codes do not actually mean the plastic can be recycled. The industry fought for the misleading codes while initiating a $50-million-dollar (per year) ad campaign promoting the benefits of plastics and the promise of recycling. Environmental groups and local recyclers pushed back against the codes from the start, arguing that they are deceptive. The public sees the symbols and rightly assumes that the materials are recyclable, when in practice that is usually not an option.
The resin codes, numbered 1 to 7, give some indication of what the plastic is made from, but actually there are hundreds of different resin subcategories, blends, material types (e.g., films, rigid, expanded, etc.) and chemical components. This is why plastics recycling is so difficult except for a small sliver of the waste stream (milk jugs and water bottles are the easiest to recycle).
The resin codes are one of many industry schemes to make plastics more palatable. The plastics lobby wants us to believe they have an orderly system behind all those microscopic numbers. We should rest assured our mountains of used plastics will be recycled – so long as we are civic-minded and do our part, rinsing the used plastics and placing them in the proper bin.
The Starbucks disposable lid exemplifies plastics industry claims of recycling innovation. The Intercept describes: “Companies have latched on to the hopeful term [recyclable] to make their latest plastic products more palatable. Starbucks, for instance, has lavished praise on itself for its “recyclable lid” rolling out in six cities this summer, which the company predicted will eliminate a billion straws. But because the lids are made from polypropylene (also known as No. 5 plastic), and there is very little market for recycled polypropylene, that number has no basis in reality. Only 5 percent of polypropylene was recycled [or at least, exported] in 2015 — and that was before China decided to stop taking our waste. Since then, the percentage recycled is likely much lower still, meaning that the vast majority of the 1 billion new “recyclable” Starbucks lids will end up where the old ones did — in landfills, trash heaps, incinerators, and the oceans.”
Almost always, it is cheaper and easier for manufacturers to use virgin materials than to buy recycled plastic. In the US, there is limited recycling of plastics 1 (PET) and 2 (HDPE), and a very small amount of recycling of items made with other plastics such as #5. An industry campaign to recycle plastic #4, LDPE grocery bags, includes special collection bins in front of 18,000 supermarkets across the country. In practice these bags are largely combusted and landfilled like other plastic waste. There is almost no market for recycled plastic bags.
Is it safe to use recycled plastic?
Not necessarily. Products made from recycled plastics generally contain more hazardous substances than virgin plastic due to the mix of plastic types that get recycled. Studies are finding elevated levels of toxic chemicals leaching from recycled plastic bottles and other food-contact materials, sometimes at double the amounts found in virgin plastic, including PFAS, phthalates, flame retardants, bisphenol A, UV stabilizers, and other chemicals.
Despite decades of research on separation technologies, there are limited ways to sort the different types of solid waste plastic – most are inefficient, ineffective, and expensive – so the most dangerous types of plastics chemicals ultimately make their way into the recycling-bound feedstock.
Some of the most heavily contaminated plastics are those used in electric and electronic materials and in vehicles. Making recycled plastic from such items introduces brominated flame retardants and other dangerous chemicals into the recycled plastic. This is especially worrisome when the recycled plastic is destined for food-contact materials such as utensils and food storage and serving containers.
Waste authorities in the US and other countries are debating what to do with recycled plastic given the potential risk to consumers from leaching chemicals.
My municipality used to recycle, but we no longer do. What happened?
Many jurisdictions have ended their plastics waste recycling programs. Some have ended all recycling. Here is the back story:
For the past quarter century, China was the world’s biggest importer of trash including plastic waste. It was importing more than 55 percent of discarded plastic from around the globe including 70 percent of US plastic waste collected for recycling and 95 percent of the European Union’s plastic recycling collections. In January, 2018, the Chinese government made the decision to stop importing the plastic waste. While the waste imports made sense for otherwise-empty Chinese cargo ships on their voyage home (given our trade imbalance with China), all that contaminated plastic trash was becoming an environmental problem for China. And little was actually getting recycled. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-20741-9
Suddenly US municipalities were stuck with their own plastic trash which for years they had been shipping off to China (calling this recycling). China’s decision to stop taking our plastic garbage challenged our comforting illusion of good environmental stewardship.
Now municipalities in the US, Europe and elsewhere are forced to recycle, burn, landfill, or otherwise dispose of the plastic waste themselves, or to find other importers willing to burn or bury it behind our backs. It is no wonder that some US cities have given up on the illusory “plastics recycling” idea altogether.
What happens to the plastic trash that we export to other countries?
Most exported plastic appears to be buried or incinerated, although officially it still counts as “recycled.” The US sends over a million tons overseas each year, most of it to the world’s poorest countries. The 60 or so importers of US plastics waste include many of those least equipped to deal with it. According to the Basel Action Network, the biggest importers of US plastics in 2021 were Malaysia, El Salvador, Hong Kong, Honduras, Mexico, Vietnam, Ecuador, Guatemala, Indonesia and Thailand. As this shocking investigation documents, US plastic trash is even ending up in countries that ban its import, such as India.
Amazon Packages Burn in India, Final Stop in Broken Recycling System. Bloomberg Green, 27 December 2022
Basel Action Network describes how Malaysia continues to struggle under the burden of so much exported plastic. "The country is still grappling with the huge amounts of waste imported in 2018 and 2019 after waste inundated the country following China’s ban. Baled waste from that period still sits in warehouses and dumps, abandoned after it was found too dirty to recycle, owners cut and run, or nearby illegal factories shut down, leaving nowhere for the waste to go. In one example, a landowner seeded a field with grass, growing thigh-high and covering plastic with Spanish instruction printed on it. The responsibility for the waste now rests with local councils, which often are powerless ...as they are also unable to afford the high clean-up costs which caused it to be abandoned in the first place."
Similar scenes are taking place around the world in the global dumping grounds for plastics trash. In Indonesia, for example, researchers from the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) describe the East Java village of Tropodo, where the tofu factories burn the imported waste plastic for fuel, generating plumes of black smoke. An adult eating just one egg from a free-range chicken foraging in the vicinity of the tofu factory in Tropodo would exceed the European Food Safety Authority’s tolerable daily intake (TDI) for chlorinated dioxins by 70-fold – among the highest dioxin levels every recorded in Asia.
Is the answer to use less plastic?
Yes, but the change has to happen on a societal scale. Simply urging people to use less plastic (and other petrochemicals) may be as useful as shouting into the wind.
The petrochemical industry has reached its toxic tentacles into most every aspect of our lives. A majority of our clothes, toiletries, and cosmetics are made from oil and gas. Our water bottles and food containers are made from fossil fuel plastic. Our phones, laptops, and other electronics are plastic. Virtually every food we buy at the grocery store is wrapped in plastic. Our vegetables are grown from plastic-covered seeds on industrial farm fields saturated in fossil-fuel fertilizers and pesticides, covered in polyethylene mulches. We drive home in fossil-fuel powered vehicles carrying throw-away plastic grocery bags, and then we cook our meals with fracked methane gas that gushes out of our stoves (even when they’re turned “off”) and contaminates our indoor air before it enters the atmosphere.
Simply to list all of the fossil fuels in our daily lives would be a daunting task.
So we can’t just tell people to cut back. Solutions need to be economical and convenient for consumers. Change has to come from the top as well as from the bottom.
Is litter the real problem?
Many of us have grown up thinking that the real problem with plastic trash is litter.
We are shocked by the litter bugs who toss their garbage on the ground. But as for our neighbor who fills the back of his SUV with multi-packs of plastic water bottles (the whole parcel covered in a neat plastic film) he is one of us.
The plastics lobby has been wildly successful in its half-century-long anti-litter campaign, directing our disdain toward the villains among us, the “litterbugs.”
As described by The Intercept, “In 1971, Keep America Beautiful, an anti-litter organization formed by beverage and packaging companies, including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Phillip Morris, teamed up with the Ad Council to create the now-infamous ‘Crying Indian’ ad. Although the ‘Indian’ who tears up when he sees a bag of litter thrown on the ground was really an Italian-American actor with a feather stuck in his hair, the ad’s sneakier deception was that its expression of concern about pollution was brought to the airwaves by many of the same companies that produced the pollution. Even as their ad was inducing guilt in viewers for spreading trash, Keep America Beautiful’s members were fighting legislation that could have done much to address the problem.”
We feel like good citizens when we pick up trash and put it in the refuse bin. Our school groups and Scout Troops organize clean-up events. And every kid learns to “Reduce, Re-Use, and Recycle,” although the first two are generally ignored and the third is a largely a public relations stunt. Company lobbyists sponsor cheery contests for children to create art work using plastic trash, all the while those very same trade groups engage in a behind-the-scenes lobbying effort to strip local governments in those very communities of their right to ban, restrict, or tax plastic grocery bags or single-use plastic water bottles.
The Intercept sums up the situation well: The plastics lobbyists’ trick has been “to publicly embrace its opponents’ concern for the environment while privately fighting attempts at regulation.” The plastics industry has focused our attention on feel-good exercises like recycling, tree-planting, and anti-litter campaigns. This jaw-dropping article describes specific examples of the Jekyll and Hyde approach.
The chemical industry has been promoting recycling while knowing full well that recycling is not an option for most plastic. At the same time, their lobbyists have been working behind the scenes to convince state legislators to deregulate plastic pyrolysis incinerators by reclassifying them as a form of recycling [as described below] and to pre-empt plastic bag bans and bottle bills. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 18 states have pre-empted any plastics restrictions. This means that 42 percent of Americans now live in jurisdictions where they are barred from passing local bans on plastics.
Although disposable plastic shopping bags and water bottles are only a tiny part of the vast petrochemical market, such single-use plastic restrictions would be dangerously symbolic of a conversation the companies don’t want us to be having. Plastic bag bans or bottle deposits might lead to further restrictions and might impede the industry’s efforts to keep demand rising alongside the ever-growing production capacity.
The pandemic has strengthened the hand of industry lobbyists. In the words of Lund University researchers, “As one should never let a crisis go to waste, the plastic industry used the covid-19 pandemic – which has led to collapsing markets for commodity plastics – to lobby against the use of reusables and for rolling back legislation on single-use plastics and plastic bags, just as consumers were beginning to adjust their behaviour.”
Should we burn plastic waste instead?
No. Plastics combustion endangers surrounding communities and the planet, so it is not a good solution to the plastic waste crisis. More than 16 percent of the trash burned by municipal waste incinerators is plastic, double what it was in 1990. The plastic waste releases lead, cadmium, mercury, dioxins, and other dangerous air pollutants as well as climate-heating gases. Most trash incinerators are situated in low-wealth neighborhoods and communities of color.
Trash does not actually disappear when it is burned, but rather it changes form into air pollutants, sludge, waste water, and so forth. Up to a quarter of the solid waste, by weight, becomes ash. Some of the fine-particle ”fly ash” escapes into the air through the incinerator stacks, while the heavier “bottom ash” has to be transported to landfill facilities.
The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 singled out waste incinerators for their extremely toxic emissions. One thing that distinguishes the waste incineration rules in the Clean Air Act is that they apply to any amount to be burned. Section 129 sets numerical limits for particulate matter, opacity, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, lead, cadmium, mercury, and dioxins/furans. Despite the emissions limits, the quantities of fine particulates and of hazardous air pollutants that escape from incinerators into the surrounding communities are substantial. And emissions of other pollutants such as PFAS are not controlled at all.
All sorts of petrochemical materials make their way into municipal waste receptacles, and end up getting incinerated. In addition to the effects on human health, the burning of plastics releases vast quantities of climate-heating gases. For example, certain textiles and insulating materials contain fluoropolymers, a type of PFAS substances that includes some of the planet’s most potent greenhouse gases. Some fluoropolymers have more than 10,000 times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide. EPA includes no requirements to measure, control, or report on these emissions.
Plastics are often disposed of under this guise of “waste-to-energy recovery.” There are 76 waste-to-energy incinerators in the US, which burn roughly 12 percent of municipal solid waste. These facilities generate limited amounts of electricity, thus masking their primary function which is to burn trash. The burning trash produces heat, which turns water into high-pressure steam in a boiler, rotating the blades of a turbine generator to produce electricity. It is an inefficient and expensive way to make energy, but the facilities benefit from the “waste to energy” designation and from significant financial subsidies. Two-thirds of the facilities (located in 23 states) have access to renewable energy subsidies.
"Advanced recycling," "molecular recycling," "chemical recycling"— what are they all talking about?
The terms are interchangeable, part of the plastics industry’s greenwashing campaign to sugarcoat the burning of plastic garbage.
In recent years, plastics industry lobbyists have latched onto an old incineration method as a new way to solve the plastic pollution crisis. They are calling the process a type of “recycling” even though nothing gets recycled. Instead, the trash that enters these facilities is burned, creating harmful air pollution and toxic ash. The petrochemical lobby is now fixated on convincing states, Congress, and the EPA that this plastic incineration should not count as incineration. So far, 21 states have capitulated to plastics industry pressure, and it is unclear whether the Biden Administration might do the same.
The idea of this process is to turn plastic waste back into its hydrocarbon constituents, most commonly by heating plastic trash. Decades of technology research, however, has failed to make these “pyrolysis and gasification” techniques more than an industry pipe dream and a disingenuous public relations line. The process uses vast amounts of energy and is sullied by the hundreds of toxic chemical components found in petrochemicals. The process may make plastics into a more burnable fossil fuel, but to call it recycling is misleading.
Like municipal waste incinerators, these incinerators produce a range of harmful emissions such as ultra-fine particulates, lead, mercury, cadmium, PAHs, and dioxins. But unlike municipal waste incinerators, these plastics incineration facilities are increasingly allowed to operate without pollution controls. Meanwhile, many are securing the regulatory and financial subsidies that are meant for manufacturing and recycling. Using the term “recycling” is a cynical ploy by the petrochemical industry to win community support for incineration while sidestepping the pollution controls of the Clean Air Act.
The Biden EPA is now considering rolling back the air pollution regulations for these plastics incinerators, even though for nearly 30 years EPA has been regulating these pyrolysis and gasification technologies as incinerators. Deregulating plastics incineration by exempting it from section 129 of the Clean Air Act would leave the incinerators free to emit as much harmful air pollution as they wish, without any monitoring, reporting, or control technologies. The plastic industry is targeting low-wealth neighborhoods and communities of color for the construction of these “advanced recycling” facilities.
In January, 2022 the Biden Administration’s Department of Energy announced that it is investing $13.4 million in research on plastics research, under such project titles as "infinitely recyclable single-polymer chemistry," "catalytic deconstruction of plasma treated single-use plastics to value-added chemicals," and “biodegradable films.” In January, 2023, the Biden DOE released a major report promoting so-called chemical recycling.
The idea of melting plastic into its constituent building blocks so it can be repurposed into new plastic products sounds sensible. But the industry has been trying to achieve this for decades – and failed. There is no reason to think that now should be any different, given the technical and economic challenges. But to perpetuate these false solutions is hugely valuable for industry public relations, and having the funding and the imprimatur of the US Department of Energy helps the industry enormously.
For the Biden Administration to allow these pyrolysis and gasification facilities to burn plastics without pollution controls in the least privileged and most contaminated communities would be environmental injustice at its worst.
So, what is the best way to deal with plastic waste?
For a small subset of plastics (primarily #1 and #2 bottles), mechanical recycling offers a less harmful and more “circular” waste management option. Mechanical recycling enables certain waste plastics to be re-used at least one more time. But mechanical recycling is costly, polluting, and replete with technical challenges given the thousands of different types of plastic. It presents its own toxic hazards to workers, communities, and consumers, so it is a partial and imperfect solution, at best.
The worst option is to build more waste-burning infrastructure, whether multi-million-dollar waste-to-energy incinerators or the cheaper “advanced recycling” incinerators that have been operating without pollution controls. The emissions from these facilities contaminate neighboring communities and include potent greenhouse gases. Both “waste-to-energy” and “advanced recycling” incinerators are extraordinarily inefficient means of generating electricity or fuel. Moreover, investing in such infrastructure locks in the reliance on fossil fuel plastics and the use of heavily polluting waste management systems for decades to come.
For most plastic waste (aside from the #1 and #2 clear bottles that can be recycled), municipal waste landfilling may be the best option for now. Burying the trash buys us time to transition to more sustainable materials, products and processes. Landfills are not without problems, and it is critical that these facilities adhere to strict protocols to prevent toxic pollution releases and fire hazards. And when landfills reach their capacity, the waste mountains can be covered with clay and a plastic shield, plus several feet of soils and plants, and the facilities can be transformed into carefully-monitored parks.
The quantities of waste that end up in landfills can be reduced dramatically by shifting away from our single-use lifestyle, diverting glass, metals, and paper to be recycled, increasing the mechanical recycling rates for plastic bottles, and diverting food waste and other organics into backyard- and industrial composting systems.
While there is no good way to dispose of waste plastic, there are proven solutions to the plastics crisis. All involve phasing down the production of plastics, which last forever and emits toxic pollution at every stage. For example, Canada just banned throwaway checkout bags, cutlery, foodservice ware and other single-use plastics, and the US could do the same. Even five-or-ten-cent fees on plastic bags and bottle deposit systems can be effective in raising awareness and reducing reliance on single-use plastics. Filtered water stations for filling water bottles can offer a free and much cleaner drinking water option than the throwaway single-serve plastic bottles that have become the nation’s most popular beverage. Schools and meal-delivery programs can install dishwashers and return to refillable, re-usable dishware in place of plastic trays, plates, cups and utensils.
These are some of the many concrete steps we can take to replace our toxic throwaway culture and our climate recklessness with healthy and sustainable solutions.
Petrochemicals and Climate Change
How urgent is the climate crisis?
On February 28, 2022 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a dire warning about the cascading impacts of climate change – such as floods, heatwaves, droughts, acute water and food insecurity –and the mounting loss of life, biodiversity and infrastructure. In a 3500-page report, the 270 authors and 675 contributing authors warned that the scientific evidence is unequivocal. Human well-being will be in serious jeopardy without immediate action to stem the emission of climate-heating gases.
It is critical to keep global heating below 2.7 degrees F, and yet the world is on track for far higher temperatures. The US and other countries are lagging behind their pledges for reduced carbon emissions. And the promised reductions themselves are insufficient to prevent catastrophic global heating. Here are some helpful charts:
How are plastics and other petrochemicals heating the planet?
Petrochemicals are made from oil, gas and coal, and are a significant part of the climate-and-fossil-fuels crisis. Yet they remain largely under the radar of most climate change campaigns. As the world shifts to renewable energy generation and electric vehicles in a belated effort to rein in global heating, officials remain largely silent about the vast and growing emissions from plastics and other petrochemicals.
Each step of the petrochemical lifecycle releases greenhouse gases, including the enormous methane emissions from fracking and other forms of oil and gas drilling; the 1500-degree cracking and other stages of chemical processing; the transport by pipelines, trucks, ships, and trains; the ongoing emissions during use, and the significant pollution from plastics disposal. The greenhouse gas burden is enormous when plastics are incinerated in pyrolysis facilities, municipal waste combustors, cement kilns, and other such facilities. Some petrochemical products are especially potent greenhouse gases, such as the hydrofluorocarbons used in refrigeration, air-conditioning, building insulation, fire extinguishing systems, and aerosols.
A February 15, 2022 EPA draft Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990- 2020, states that petrochemical production went from emitting 21.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in 1990 to 30.3 in 2020, a 39 percent increase in emissions.
Note that EPA classifies petrochemicals narrowly, and other fossil-fuel derived products such as ammonia – the foundation of nitrogen fertilizers – are included in separate categories. Moreover, these calculations are limited to petrochemical manufacture and do not include the oil and gas drilling nor the chemical constituents of plastics manufactured by overseas or lower-volume producers. Some PFAS additives, for example, are thousands of times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. As discussed in the next question, plastics emit only a limited portion of their climate-heating gases during product manufacture. The full lifecycle emissions are much higher.
The Center for International Environmental Law calculates that if global plastic production continues to increase as planned, by 2030, the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions could reach 1.34 billion tons per year. This is equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants, and roughly equal to the emissions of the entire continent of Africa today. By 2050, the cumulation of these greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 billion tons, 10 to 13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget (the amount of carbon dioxide humans can release into the atmosphere and still avoid 2.7 degrees (F) of global heating).
Beyond Plastics found that the annual greenhouse gas emissions from the plastics industry in the US are as much as the average emissions released by 116 coal-fired power plants, as of 2020. This amount is equivalent to the greenhouse gas pollution from 50 million cars.
Despite their supersized contribution to global warming, Exxon, Dow, and other oil and gas companies have engaged in an all-out effort to influence politicians and to mislead the public – even as their own internal documents have been raising red flags about climate emissions for decades. The petrochemical and plastics industries are spending vast sums parading their flagship greenwashing initiatives and promoting what they claim to be the critical role of plastics in fighting global warming and in achieving a “circular plastics economy.” Meanwhile they are smothering fenceline communities in toxic air pollution and releasing climate-heating gases at every stage, from the fracking to the cracking to the burning.
New York Magazine describes the misinformation: “...to judge by the advertisements, the transition to renewables has already happened. British Petroleum is now a solar-energy company called BP, ExxonMobil brews giant swimming pools of cool green-algae fuel, and Shell maintains mountain canyons lined with wind turbines floating in fog. All these initiatives actually do exist, though they are a tiny fraction of each company’s budget; so far, the main product of Exxon’s algae program seems to be propaganda. These companies aren’t planning for a future without oil and gas, at least not anytime soon, but they want the public to think of them as part of a climate solution. In reality, they’re a problem trying to avoid being solved.”
Inside the Fossil-Fuel Industry’s Plan to Profit From Climate Change
What is embedded carbon?
Only about 35 percent of potential climate emissions from plastics are released as part of the manufacturing process. University of Pennsylvania researchers have calculated that the other 65 percent is “embedded” carbon, meaning it becomes part of the plastic products. This carbon — not included in the official emissions inventories — gets released over time and during disposal, especially during incineration.
So while the proportion of greenhouse gases from plastics and petrochemicals is sometimes listed in the single digits, such accounting captures only a sliver of petrochemical emissions. The numbers do not consider the process from cradle-to-grave, from fracking to incineration, and the vast amounts of temporarily sequestered carbon atoms in petrochemical products.
Plastics manufacture is more energy-intensive than any other industrial sector but it is only the third most carbon-intensive after steel and cement – largely due to the temporarily embedded carbon in plastics. And plastics continue to release greenhouse gases throughout the product lifecycle, whether as insulation and vinyl siding on our homes or as single use plastics bound for incinerators, landfills, or a future as micro-plastics in the oceans or agricultural soils. The large-scale sudden release of embedded carbon during the incineration process is especially deleterious for the planet.
Is the global petrochemical expansion undermining efforts to put the brakes on climate change?
Yes. Researchers have predicted that global plastics production will increase by 30 percent over the next five years, and will triple by 2060. If governments do not intervene, the petrochemical sector could stymie international efforts to curb the release of climate-heating pollutants.
Between 2012 and 2019, the 12 largest petrochemical companies in the world announced 88 new projects to increase production capacity and expand infrastructure. Sixty-one of these projects aim to manufacture ethylene or polyethylene, including BASF’s brand-new petrochemical cluster in Guangdong, China, which will be BASF’s largest investment ever (construction is underway, to be completed by 2030). That is just a subset of the global build-out, as many such projects are being carried out by lesser companies not included in the analysis.
In the US alone, Oil and Gas Watch has identified 402 new oil, gas, and petrochemical processing facilities have been built over the last decade. They are permitted to release an extra 128,925,352 tons of greenhouse gases per year. An additional 427 projects have not yet been constructed but are in-the-works. These would release an additional 206,544,843 tons of greenhouse gases per year.
Since just 2019, at least 42 plastics plants have opened in the US, are under construction, or are in the midst of permitting, according to Beyond Plastics at Bennington College. Assuming they become operational, by 2025 these facilities would add 55 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, which is the same as 27 coal fired power plants. Among the largest greenhouse gas emitters is one that uses coal: the Eastman plant in Kingsport, Tennessee reported releasing more than 4.2 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2019, making it one of the industry’s highest stand-alone sources.
The enormity of the climate consequences from recently or soon-to-be-built oil, gas, and petrochemical infrastructure in two states, Texas and Louisiana, is captured by this analysis in Environmental Research Letters (2020). https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab5e6f/pdf The researchers project that the new buildout in Texas and Louisiana will increase annual GHG emissions of about 541 million tons of CO2e by 2030. This is more than 8% of total 2017 US GHG emissions. The extra carbon emissions are roughly equivalent to the CO2e emissions of 131 coal-fired power plants. This analysis does not include the vast new petrochemical buildout in other parts of the US including the Ohio River Valley.
How much of the climate emissions are from single-use plastics?
The largest share climate-heating petrochemical emissions is from production and incineration of single-use plastics. ExxonMobil is the largest producer of polymers used in single-use plastics, followed by China’s Sinopec and then Dow Chemical.
The plastic industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of planet-warming emissions each year, according to Beyond Plastics, and much of this (more than 40 percent) is from single-use plastics. The Minderoo Foundation calculates that the full cradle-to-grave greenhouse gas emissions from single-use plastics in 2021 were equivalent to the total emissions of the United Kingdom (450 million metric tons CO₂e).
Currently the US and other wealthy countries consume over 20 times more single-use plastics than some of the less wealthy nations in Africa and South Asia, but use is expected to accelerate in those regions. If the growth continues at current rates, some observers suggest that single use plastics alone could account for five to 10 percent of all global warming emissions by the year 2050.
It will require systemic, structural changes to fix this situation, and the fortitude to hold responsible the petrochemical profiteers who set us on this dangerous path.
How do sunk costs affect climate change?
Many petrochemical facilities are multi-billion-dollar investments. Once built, the plants can operate at relatively low cost for many decades. But therein lies the problem. The multinational corporations have every reason to fight for the continued profitability of their assets. They seek to “bury our economies deeper in the carbon lock-in while deflecting their responsibility for the climate impact associated with the production of fossil-based plastics,” as Lund University researchers note.
In addition to the private and public sectors funneling vast sums toward petrochemical infrastructure, locking in carbon emissions for decades to come, there are also opportunity costs – the money that could have been spent on solutions. The Swedish scientists explain, “Recent investments are likely to have crowded out low carbon options from the project portfolio of these firms despite their significant responsibilities for greenhouse gas emissions, other environmental impacts and capability to implement new industrial norms and long-term behaviours.” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421521002883
While 65 percent of coal plants nationwide have been retired, and the nation aspires to transition to cleaner energy sources, those gains may soon be cancelled out by the massive growth of the petrochemical sector. The fossil fuel industry has been scrambling to lock in its petrochemical infrastructure to replace profits from declining electricity markets.
Plastics and other petrochemicals are the fossil fuel industry’s underhanded solution to the threat of depleted profits in a post-carbon future. In the words of Beyond Plastics, “plastics is the fossil fuel industry’s Plan B. But there is no Plan B for the rest of us.”
Plastic dinosaurs – Digging deep into the accelerating carbon lock-in of plastics
Do plastics keep emitting greenhouse gases, even once they disintegrate to become microplastics?
Yes. At all stages of the value chain, plastics and other petrochemicals release planet-heating gases into the environment. This includes the initial fossil fuel drilling, the ultimate disposal, and everything in between. Even microplastics release greenhouse gases.
In addition to the large-scale emission of carcinogens into the air and waterways, the drilling and fracking for petrochemical feedstocks involves enormous leakage of methane when the wells are drilled and fracked, when the gas is compressed into pipelines, when it is transported, when the wells are plugged, and after the wells have been abandoned. Some researchers have suggested that the cumulative effect makes the use of methane and ethane even more deleterious for the climate than coal. And in older wells where production is declining, researchers have noted that methane emissions keep rising as equipment ages and ultimately breaks down.
At the other end of the value-chain, even the seemingly benign plastic toys on our shelves, and the microplastics in our soils and waterways, continue to release greenhouse gases indefinitely. At projected rates of plastics production, the oceans may have more plastic than fish by mid-century. The mass of plastic floating in the Pacific currently covers 15 times more surface area than Pennsylvania. Plastics and microplastics in the ocean create myriad problems including the fact that they interfere with carbon fixation and that they endanger wildlife. There is also evidence that the smallest microplastics damage zooplankton – the tiny organisms that are critical in the ocean's ability to absorb carbon. Meanwhile, the microplastics themselves keep releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
In fact, emissions may be greater once the plastics degrade into smaller pieces. Microplastics have a large surface area relative to their size, which may accelerate the release of hydrocarbon gases. Polyethylene – which constitutes 36 percent of plastics in existence and is the most common plastic in the ocean – is also the biggest emitter of methane and ethane. Beyond Plastics, a program at Bennington College, explains that polyethylene’s “…comparatively weak chemical structure includes more exposed hydrocarbon branches, which break free more easily than other plastic polymers when the material is exposed to sunlight. Studies indicate that many plastics will not emit gas when kept in the dark, but this is not always the case for polyethylene. Once exposed to sunlight, it will continue to emit greenhouse gases even after it is moved to the dark.
The sheer quantity of polyethylene – and its tendency, as a lightweight material, to float more easily on the surface – presents a daunting challenge. Low density polyethylene (LDPE), its most common form, is used for six pack rings, plastic wrap, cereal bags, squeeze bottles, and countless other applications. The material is ubiquitous, and is estimated to be the most common form of plastic pollution in surface ocean waters worldwide.”
Beyond Plastics’ 2021 report is one of the very best sources of information on plastics and climate. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5eda91260bbb7e7a4bf528d8/t/616ef29221985319611a64e0/1 634661022294/REPORT_The_New-Coal_Plastics_and_Climate-Change_10-21-2021.pdf
The emissions increase when exposed to air. This study, for example, found that emissions of hydrocarbons from microplastics are up to two times higher for methane and up to 76 times higher for ethylene when exposed to air rather than submerged in water. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0200574
Unfortunately, agricultural researchers have found that the amount of plastic deposited in farmland soils may be even greater than that in the oceans, as discussed above.
National and Global Governance
Will Congress fix the petrochemical crisis?
Several US Representatives and Senators have proposed bills that would achieve significant reforms. The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, The Protecting Communities from Plastics Act, and the Environmental Justice for All Act, among others, include valuable provisions that deserve our support.
The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act would make producers accountable for their waste and pollution, and would phase out unnecessary single-use plastics. https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/984/all-info
Introduced in March 2021 by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), this bill would place an immediate moratorium on new petrochemical facilities, halting the expansion of plastic production pending a review of the industry's environmental impact.
In the words of its congressional sponsors, it would “reduce plastic production, increase recycling, and protect frontline and fenceline communities from the burden of toxic emissions from plastic waste by changing the incentives of the industry. The bill would shift the burden of cleanup to the corporations that produced the plastics so they have financial motivation to end the burning and dumping; strengthening environmental justice protections; eliminating waste export loopholes; and extending across the nation existing laws that have been proven to work on the state and local level, among other steps.”
Specific provisions include:
- Require the producers of packaging, containers and food-service products to design, manage and finance waste and recycling programs
- Establish a national bottle bill
- Ban certain non-recyclable single-use plastic products and restrict or require fees on plastic carryout bags
- Establish minimum recycled content requirements for certain plastic products, e.g., packaging
- Pause the permitting of new and expanded plastic production facilities as EPA studies localized pollution impacts
- Restrict the export of plastic wastes.
The bill includes filtration standards for clothes washers to capture microplastics.
Unfortunately, the bill’s recommendations did not make it into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.
The Environmental Justice for All Act was introduced by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) in the House and by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) in the Senate.
The Act would reinstate a private right of action, enabling aggrieved individuals to bring civil rights suits against entities engaging in practices with discriminatory impact. Impacted community members would no long have to rely on EPA to take such action on their behalf. The Act would overrule Alexander v. Sandoval, the 2001 Supreme Court decision that a regulation enacted under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not include a private right of action. That 5-4 2001 Supreme Court ruling barred private lawsuits based on evidence of disparate impact. This Act would give Title VI some teeth (Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity that receives Federal funds or other Federal financial assistance), rescinding the decision of Justices Scalia, Thomas, Rehnquist, O’Connor and Kennedy.
[Alexander v. Sandoval: https://www.oyez.org/cases/2000/99-1908]
In addition, the Environmental Justice for All Act would amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and the Clean Air Act to consider cumulative impacts from other pollution sources and risk factors in the geographic area. (This could be a game-changer.) The Act would force permitting authorities to consider cumulative impacts before issuing and renewing permits. The Act also specifies that the assessment must take into account “sensitive populations and other factors that may heighten vulnerability to environmental pollution and associated health risks, including socioeconomic characteristics.”
There are specific provisions for persistent violators requiring the development of mitigation plans and making clear that further noncompliance will mean denial of the permits. The Act also establishes inter-agency councils and reporting requirements, as well as an extensive research component evaluating multiple and cumulative exposures and effects on vulnerable populations.
Near the end of the Act is an interesting section on cosmetics. This section requires the prominent display of ingredient lists and warnings. It establishes a program to support research focused on the design of safer alternatives to chemicals in cosmetics with inherent toxicity or associated with chronic adverse health effects, and to educate consumers and promote the use of safer alternatives in cosmetics.
Priority would be given to
- Replacing chemicals in professional cosmetic products used by nail and hair and beauty salon workers with safer alternatives; and
- Replacing chemicals in cosmetic products marketed to women and girls of color, including beauty, personal hygiene, and intimate care products, with safer alternatives.
There are also specific provisions for menstrual products. The Act includes an initiative to support research focused on the design of safer alternatives to chemicals in consumer, cleaning, toy, and baby products with inherent toxicity or that are associated with chronic adverse health effects. Finally, the Act includes funds for just transition and for the economic revitalization of fossil-fuel dependent communities.
Protecting Communities from Plastics Act of 2022
In December, 2022, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), together with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), introduced the Protecting Communities from Plastics Act. The legislation seeks to address the plastic production crisis that is fueling climate change and perpetuating environmental injustice.
The Act would crack down on the plastic production, address the toxic air pollution in fenceline communities, and help move our economy away from an overreliance on single-use plastic. It establishes stricter rules for petrochemical plants to safeguard the health of American communities and to lower the greenhouse gas emissions fueling the climate crisis. The bill would reduce the reliance on single-use plastics and begin to shift the economy to refill and reuse systems in the packaging and food service sectors.
Highlights of the Act include:
- Establishing a temporary pause on the permitting of new and expanded industrial facilities that create new plastic, convert plastic into chemical feedstocks for new products or fuel, or burn or incinerate plastics for fuel or energy.
- Directing EPA to make needed updates to regulations to protect environmental justice communities to ensure minimal air and water discharges to protect communities from direct and cumulative health, environmental, and economic impacts, including establishing a new cumulative impacts analysis requirement for permitting of covered facilities.
- Directing EPA to initiate a rulemaking to designate PVC as a hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
- Establishing source reduction targets for single-use plastic packaging and food service ware.
- Instructing EPA to keep so-called “chemical recycling” plastics incineration technologies out of the National Recycling Strategy.
- Reducing single-use plastics in agriculture via USDA grant programs and by directing the Secretary of Agriculture to designate projects to replace on-farm plastic weed barriers with non-plastic, biodegradable alternatives as an eligible agricultural conservation practice or enhancement under the new climate-smart agriculture designation in the Inflation Reduction Act.
Environmental Justice Air Quality Monitoring Act of 2022
Representative Kathy Castor (D-FL) introduced a bill in February 2022, together with co-sponsors Donald McEachin (D-VA) and Ritchie Torres (D-NY), to establish a pilot program for “hyperlocal air quality monitoring” projects in environmental justice communities. Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced a similar bill in the Senate in July.
The bill would establish a five-year pilot to fund local agencies, community organizations and activists skilled in so-called hyperlocal air monitoring. These groups would conduct continuous measurement of toxic air pollution in small parcels (one block or 100 m radius area) in low wealth or minority communities and in other heavily polluted locations. The program would have a 100-million-dollar annual budget for each of the five years.
Air monitoring is an important first step. There are no specifics on how the EPA or state entities would use the data.
Rewarding Efforts to Decrease Unrecycled Contaminants in Ecosystems (REDUCE Act)
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse introduced the REDUCE Act in August 2021. It would impose a 10 cent per pound fee (going up to 20 cents and higher over time) on the sale of virgin plastic used for single-use products. https://www.whitehouse.senate.gov/news/release/whitehouse-unveils-reduce-act-to-tackle-plastic-pollution
While the imposition of a fee on virgin plastics seems sensible, it would be helpful to include this within the context of other provisions. These could include restrictions on plastic chemicals, and also addressing occupational health considerations, ensuring the safety of recycled end products, and providing oversight on the environmental justice siting and the processes for the recycling itself.
Most types of plastic are not currently recyclable, and the popularity of mixed polymers can make even #1s and 2s impossible to recycle. Moreover, plastics recycling involves highly toxic exposures, especially for workers and nearby communities who come in contact with a range of heavy metals and other contaminants. The resulting products can bring consumers in contact with the elevated levels of toxic chemicals that leach out of recycled plastics. Thus, it would make sense to start recycling efforts at the front end by designing products are actually safe and recyclable when they reach the disposal phase. And meanwhile to create incentives to transition away from single-use plastics altogether.
Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act
This bill was introduced by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) in May, 2022, and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) in March 2021. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) sponsored a similar act. The legislation would prohibit the discharge of plastic pellets and other pre-production plastic materials into sewage systems or waterways.
PFAS Action Act of 2021
There are many PFAS bills in Congress. One example is the PFAS Action Act, a bipartisan bill introduced by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI).
PFAS chemicals are widely used in plastics – including in nonstick cookware and in waterproof clothing -- and are extremely toxic even in the most minute amounts.
The bill establishes requirements and incentives to limit the use of these substances and to remediate PFAS in the environment.
The bill directs EPA to designate the PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous substances under the CERCLA Superfund Act, thus requiring remediation of releases. The directive could be expanded to include other PFAS chemicals.
It charges EPA with determining whether to include PFAS as a toxic pollutant under the Clean Water Act – and thus establish discharge limits and drinking water regulations. The bill also requires EPA to issue a final rule adding PFOA and PFOS to the list of hazardous air pollutants, test all PFAS for toxicity to human health, and regulate the disposal of materials containing PFAS. Included in the legislation are grants to help community water systems treat water contaminated by PFAS.
What international treaties might help address the plastics crisis?
Global plastics treaty
In the beginning of March, 2022, 175 nations agreed to start drafting an international legally binding instrument to control plastics pollution. On the table are measures to limit the production and use of single-use plastics, address plastics waste, require transparency concerning the toxic materials in plastic, restrict (or promote) plastics burning, and many other issues.
News reports note the US, Japan and India made a number of objections during the initial negotiations. Japan had wanted the treaty to focus only on microplastics and other refuse in the ocean, while India wanted the agreement to be voluntary. The US balked at mention of concerns about chemicals in plastics; the reference was removed.
The first Conference of Parties (COP) took place in early December, 2022 in Uruguay. It included representation from the wastepickers – the 20 million people who make their living scavenging waste dumps around the world. This first COP meeting dealt with contentious issues such as the rules of procedure. One question is whether EU Member States each will have a vote, or whether the EU will be treated as a single bloc during voting. Another question is whether decisions need to be arrived at via consensus – which would potentially mean watering down the treaty (perhaps for countries that will never actually agree to be a party). Arguably, the most problematic issue is that major petrochemical polluters have been playing a central role in the negotiation process, many hiding behind NGO badges.
The United States appears to be in the “low ambition” coalition, thus far, favoring an instrument more acceptable to the petrochemical polluters, promoting pyrolysis-incineration, removing toxic chemical restrictions and transparency requirements, and opposing global commitments and binding targets. It is important to keep up the pressure for a more robust global instrument. Negotiators hope to have a completed treaty by 2024.
Moms Clean Air Force comments, January 2023:
Basel convention: Restricting international trade in hazardous waste (including waste plastics)
The Basel Convention is currently the only legally binding instrument to address plastic waste. The 189 countries that are part of the Convention follow a prior informed consent procedure for the import and export of hazardous waste. In 2019, new provisions were added covering certain types of plastic waste. The amendments entered into force in 2021. Under these provisions, transboundary movements of most plastic scrap and waste destined for recycling or disposal are subject to the Basel Convention prior notice and consent requirements. Such shipments require the prior written consent of the importing country and of any transit countries.
The US signed Basel in 1990 but has never ratified. The Senate provided its advice and consent in 1992, but “does not have sufficient domestic statutory authority to implement all of its provisions.” [This situation could be remedied if there were interest.] Instead, the US is a party to other more limited arrangements, e.g., as one of 38 countries participating in the OECD.
Since the US is of the few countries in the world that did not ratify Basel, American plastics waste exporters have been ignoring the rules. The US continues to send massive amounts of plastic scrap to low-income countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. This is in contravention of the Basel rules, which bar waste-trade with non-parties.
The Global Reporting Centre raises important points about international trade in plastic trash:
“...banning low-value plastic waste exports to one country doesn’t mean much if it can be routed to another. Same with banning single-use products domestically while subsidizing their production for export (as Canada does), or banning fracking at home while importing fracked gas from abroad (as the U.K. does).”
The Rotterdam Convention
The Rotterdam Convention was adopted in 1998 and entered into force in 2004. It promotes information exchange on hazardous chemicals. Specifically, the Convention creates legally binding obligations for the implementation of a prior informed consent procedure for the international trade in certain hazardous chemicals.
The information shared via the Rotterdam Convention assists governments in assessing the risks posed by these hazardous chemicals, enabling authorities to make informed decisions on their future import. Many of the chemicals included in the treaty annexes are petrochemicals and substances found in plastics. Rotterdam empowers countries that lack adequate regulatory infrastructure to monitor the import and use of hazardous chemicals and pesticides.
There are 165 parties to Rotterdam. The US participates only as an observer.
Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)
The Stockholm Convention was adopted in 2001 and entered into force in 2004. The treaty has 186 parties. The US has not ratified, and participates only as an observer in meetings of the parties.
The Convention currently regulates 29 POPs chemicals, with more to be added. Persistent organic pollutants are chemicals that are toxic, have the capacity to accumulate in humans and wildlife, persist in the environment, and travel long distances in the atmosphere and oceans. POPS include pesticides (such as DDT), industrial chemicals (such as polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs) and unintentional by-products of industrial processes (such as dioxins and furans).
The Convention requires parties to adopt control measures to reduce and, where feasible, eliminate the release of POPs. For intentionally produced POPs, parties must prohibit or restrict their production and use, subject to certain exemptions such as the continued use of DDT. For unintentionally produced POPs, the Stockholm Convention requires “best available techniques” for their control and national action plans to address releases. The Stockholm Convention also includes provisions to support the sound management of stockpiles and wastes containing POPs.
Examples of POPs chemicals that pose risks in plastics production and waste disposal include:
- perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) found in waterproof textiles and fire-fighting foams;
- pentachlorophenol found in treated wood and textiles;
- polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are flame retardants found in plastics and textiles used in electrical and electronic equipment, vehicles and furniture;
- Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCDD), a flame retardant found in some plastic and textile waste, particularly in polystyrene insulation from demolition of buildings;
- Short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs), which are flame retardants found in some rubber and plastic waste, such as rubber conveyor belts, hoses, cables and seals;
- Polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans (PCDD/Fs), which are not produced or added to materials intentionally but are present as impurities in certain ashes and in other industrial waste; they pollute the air surrounding petrochemical production and disposal facilities;
- Dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs (which are similar to dioxins and can be present as impurities in some ashes and industrial oils).
At the end of September 2022, the treaty’s POPs Review Committee agreed to recommend listing on annex A (for global elimination of all production and use) the ubiquitous high-volume plastics chemical, UV-328. It is an extremely toxic and persistent ultra-violet stabilizer that is found in breast milk and even contaminates the Arctic. Better late than never?
Tell President Biden and EPA: Protect People from the Petrochemical Industry