The petrochemical industry is no friend to clean air and healthy communities. And the industry is expanding, seeking to build new facilities and manufacture ever more plastic products. Communities are facing a huge buildout of plastics facilities in the Ohio River Valley, and far worse, the entire petrochemical corridor on the Gulf Coast has become a sacrifice zone. The plastics industry in Louisiana and Texas has been poisoning residents for decades and continues to tighten its grip in these communities.
In the latest petrochemical industry news, the Department of Justice in June announced a proposed agreement among the US government, state agencies, and the Westlake Corporation concerning Clean Air Act violations at one facility in Calvert City, Kentucky, and at two in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The settlement would require Westlake Corporation to install and operate pollution control and monitoring technology for eight flares, which are devices that use an open flame to burn off unwanted gases, and to pay a $1 million civil penalty.
Despite the benefits of the new agreement, the proposed penalties are disappointingly modest given the number and severity of Westlake’s air quality violations. A manufacturer of PVC (plastic #3) and other petrochemicals, Westlake’s brazen disregard for community health has long made it the country’s biggest emitter of the potent human carcinogen, ethylene dichloride. For decades, the company has spewed out far more pollution–from its smokestacks, pipes, tanks, vents, and flares—than the thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals that it is officially permitted to release into the air each year.
Moms Clean Air Force commends the Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency for pursuing this enforcement action, which will reduce the dangerously high levels of benzene and other hazardous air pollutants around these facilities. We hope that this enforcement action and the one with Chevron Phillips Chemical in Texas earlier this year will help clean the air, put other companies on notice, and signal a reversal in EPA’s declining role in compliance monitoring and enforcement.
The goal of the agreement is to fix the flaring, which is the source of greenhouse gases as well as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other harmful air pollutants. The agreement requires Westlake to minimize the waste gas it sends to its flares, increase the combustion efficiency of its flares, and operate a gas recovery system.
It is good to see that the settlement includes fenceline monitoring for benzene, a known carcinogen linked to increased risk of leukemia. Benzene emissions are not only harmful in and of themselves, but they can be used as a surrogate pollutant to track other hazardous air emissions from the facilities. High readings would trigger investigations and corrective actions.
EPA has been building their case concerning Westlake’s flares in Kentucky and Louisiana since 2014. Despite the threat of a $1 million fine, the company noted to the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2021, “We do not believe that the resolution of these flare matters will have a material adverse effect on our financial condition, results of operations or cash flows.” Some of the pollution controls actually may result in cost savings for Westlake when the company starts recovering, reusing, or selling the toxic and climate-warming gases instead of burning them in flares. In any case, Westlake makes billions in profits, so the costs are a drop in the bucket.
A damning report by ProPublica offers context on Westlake’s history of recalcitrance in the face of Clean Air Act violations.
- The facilities’ ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride readings have been off the charts, one even reaching 60 times the limit.
- Company lawyers steamrolled Kentucky regulators into withdrawing violations on such grounds as this: a leak did not count as a “malfunction” because it was caused in part by “poor operations and maintenance.”
- Westlake’s flares are just one source of their emissions. As the ProPublica air toxics map shows, Westlake Vinyls in Calvert City is emitting 25 different carcinogens, exposing its neighbors to a 1-in-570 excess cancer risk, which is 17 times more than the cancer risk level that EPA considers acceptable. And in Lake Charles, the Westlake facilities are surrounded by other heavy polluters, such as Sasol Chemical and Firestone Polymer.
Negotiating an agreement that is enforceable in court is more expeditious than prolonged litigation and a jury trial–but it does not involve an admission of guilt or liability by Westlake.
Details on the one-month public comment period are posted here in the Federal Register Notice. Please note: The public comment period ends on July 15, 2022.