A Democrat bill being introduced Wednesday would give the EPA up to four months to require monitoring of ethylene oxide and other cancer-causing toxic air pollutants at the fencelines of chemical manufacturing plants.
The Public Health Air Quality Act of 2020, sponsored by Democrats Sen. Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (Del.), would require the Environmental Protection Agency to take immediate action to monitor toxic air pollutants at facilities they say are “contributing to high local cancer rates and other health threats from dangerous pollutants.”
The legislation seeks to ensure that chemical, petrochemical, and other sources of fugitive toxic air pollution comply with federal air pollution limits “so that communities never again have to wonder what is in their air,” according to an advance copy of the release obtained by Bloomberg Law.
The bill is likely to find support in the Democratic-controlled House. But it is unlikely to gain much traction in the GOP-controlled Senate, where Republicans oppose attempts to impose additional burdens on the chemical and petrochemical industries.
The legislation singles out for monitoring pollutants the EPA has deemed as either cancer-causing, such as ethylene oxide, 1,3-butadiene, and benzene, or likely to cause cancer like Chloroprene, or formaldehyde.
High levels of ethylene oxide, a pollutant the EPA deemed a carcinogen in 2016, have been detected at levels well above what the federal agency has deemed safe, especially near chemical and petrochemical plants located near low-income and minority communities in Louisiana and Texas.
The pollutant also has been detected leaking from commercial sterilization plants in Illinois and Georgia, where a grassroots effort had been successful in keeping most of these plants out of operation until Covid-19 struck.
Frustrated by Delay
The EPA wasn’t immediately available to comment on the legislation. But the agency in June released a rule (RIN 2060–AT85) revising federal standards for ethylene oxide and another 150 toxic air pollutants from manufacturers of miscellaneous organic chemicals including the six identified by the bill.
The rule is expected to reduce 107 tons per year of these chemicals, but only when it takes effect upon publication.
Duckworth has expressed frustration with EPA’s delay in publishing the rule. She asked the agency in a July 14 letter to explain why it’s taking so long to publish a regulation that is “indispensable to environmental justice communities who are disproportionately impacted by the pollution regulated by this rule.”
Most of the 201 facilities covered by the EPA regulation are concentrated in Texas and Louisiana, with major emitters also located in West Virginia, Illinois, Delaware, South Carolina, and Kentucky.
Janet McCabe, a former acting administrator for air and radiation under Obama EPA, said the bill’s sponsors are recognizing that air quality is a local issue. She said the current network of monitors is more focused on regional pollution caused by ground-level ozone.
“We don’t have comprehensive monitoring network for toxic air pollutants from these kinds of facilities,” McCabe said. “I think it is a good thing for legislation to recognize that. But there needs to be recognition that monitoring costs money whether it is done by EPA or EPA and states.”
McCabe, who is now director of the Indiana University Environmental Resilience Institute, said the bill might have difficulty advancing in either chamber of Congress. But the measure “definitely starts the conversation about monitoring toxic pollution,” she said.
The American Chemistry Council said Wednesday that emissions of specific pollutants come from a variety of sources and “we support air monitoring that measures ambient air levels as well as facility emissions in order to better understand the whole picture.”
However, “we are concerned that this legislation may inaccurately suggest that naturally occurring levels of these chemistries are the result of facility emissions,” the council added.
‘Unsafe Air for Decades’
Blunt Rochester on Wednesday drew attention to the compounding dangers of exposing frontline communities to toxic air in the midst of the global coronavirus, which attacks the respiratory system.
“The truth is that these communities have been subject to unsafe air for decades and have suffered the long-term health consequences and complications because of it,” she said. “The first step in helping these communities breathe cleaner air is figuring out what pollutants they are currently exposed to.”
As a result, the bill also would require the EPA to deploy 80 new air quality monitors in communities afflicted with high rates of asthma and Covid-19 cases. The EPA would also be required to extend its current national ambient air quality monitoring network to include more multi-pollutant monitoring stations in such communities.
“Black Americans and other communities of color are dying at disproportionate rates during this pandemic, in part because of the long-term, cumulative health consequences and complications associated with toxic air pollution from facilities located in their neighborhoods,” Duckworth said.
Duckworth founded Senate’s first-ever Environmental Justice Caucus alongside Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J) and Tom Carper (Del.), the top ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Booker fellow Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) are co-sponsor of the Public Health Air Quality Act of 2020.