Why We Need to Stop US Government Plans to Rollback Chemical Disaster Regulations
The US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) issued formal recommendations to EPA Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, urging the agency to address two issues vital to environmental justice communities and public health. One NEJAC recommendation letter urges Wheeler’s EPA to abandon efforts to roll-back recently adopted measures to prevent chemical disasters. The second NEJAC letter calls on Wheeler’s EPA to act aggressively to address toxic ethylene oxide (EtO) emissions, recently understood to cause high cancer-risk in communities across the nation, and not undercut the best independent science on the issue. Grassroots organizations and people who live in impacted environmental justice communities praised NEJAC’s recommendations to the EPA. Here’s what you need to know about why we need to stop the US government’s plans to rollback chemical disaster regulations.
“We’ve exhausted the time to wait because too many of our community members are sick or dying,” said Michele Roberts, National Co-Coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance (EJHA). “For too long, our families and our communities have been exposed to numerous overlapping and cumulative environmental hazards, and EPA should pay attention to the advice of its environmental justice council and implement these recommendations immediately.”
“It’s great to see these letters that the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council is sending to EPA,” said Emma Cheuse, staff attorney with Earthjustice. “NEJAC is calling on EPA to do its job, to protect public health from toxic air pollution and chemical disasters, because these threats are unacceptable and they fall disproportionately on communities of color and low-income people.”
The Trump Administration’s EPA is attempting to roll-back rule updates that will improve chemical disaster prevention measures at over 12,500 high-risk industrial and commercial facilities regulated under the Risk Management Plan (RMP) program. Over 124 million Americans (39%) live within three miles of an RMP facility (map and report), putting them in constant threat of catastrophic explosion or poison gas release. 24 million children attending 125,000 schools (45%) and 11,000 medical facilities (39%) are vulnerable to chemical disasters originating from these facilities. People of color and the poor face disproportionate risk.
“Houston has recently experienced several major chemical disasters but this is nothing new,” said Juan Parras, Executive Director of the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS). “Given the numerous chemical disasters we’ve experienced in the Houston area, Administrator Wheeler’s efforts to roll-back chemical disaster prevention measures make me wonder if he’s more focused on the desires of industry instead of protecting our families and loved ones.”
Ethylene oxide has recently gained recognition as a public health crisis following the release of an updated scientific assessment of its toxicity by EPA’s independent science program, the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), which found that the chemical is 30 to 50 times more carcinogenic than previously understood. According to EPA’s 2016 Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), there are 118 domestic facilities that released a combined 320,000 pounds of EtO into the air, and at least 288,000 people live within 58 ‘hot spots’ where cancer risk related to EtO alone is over 100 times greater than the level required to trigger action under the Clean Air Act. Many of these communities are disproportionately people of color and/or low-income. Some people in EtO ‘hot spot’ communities are concerned that EPA may be trying to use an unrelated rule-making on air pollution to undermine the independent, science-based IRIS assessment to avoid taking action to protect public health from EtO emissions.
“I live close to a cancer cluster in New Castle, DE,” said Linda Whitehead with Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice. “I suffer from a type of cancer that I recently learned can be caused by ethylene oxide. I’m concerned about myself and my family, but as an early childhood educator I’m especially worried about the impact ethylene oxide has on children over a lifetime of exposure. EPA needs to use the best available science to protect people from getting the same cancer I suffer from—people’s lives are on the line.”
EJHA, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other groups have urged EPA not to undercut its own independent scientific assessment of Ethylene Oxide and, instead, act aggressively to address these highly-carcinogenic emissions.
These formal recommendation letters from the NEJAC are now being transmitted to EPA Administrator Wheeler.