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‘Cancer Alley’ Among Worst Areas for Chemical Risks, Groups Say

June 22, 2020, 5:11 PM

Poor Texas and Louisiana communities, many of them Black, have higher-than-average exposures to 15 of 20 chemicals that the EPA is analyzing, groups in the two states told the agency.

Gulf-area residents from both states are exposed to 77% of the nationwide air, water, and land releases of just one of those 15 chemicals, a flame retardant, a coalition of seven Texas and Louisiana groups told the agency in comments filed late May and early June.

As early as Monday, the EPA is supposed to start releasing 20 final plans describing what people, health concerns, chemical uses, and other issues it will examine as it evaluates the risks of each chemical.

The coalition asked the EPA to identify the Louisiana and Texas coastal communities specifically as “potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulations” whose risks it will examine as part of its 20 chemical assessments.

“EPA is reviewing public comments and incorporating additional information where relevant for potentially exposed populations,” said Molly Block, an EPA spokeswoman.

The groups’ findings could pose potential “litigation vulnerabilities” for the EPA, said Lynn L. Bergeson, managing partner of Bergeson & Campbell PC, which specializes in chemical regulations and policies.

Statutory Context

The 2016 Toxic Substances Control Act amendments required the EPA to routinely examine the risks of chemicals being made and used in the U.S. It also required the agency to consider the risks that chemicals pose to susceptible and highly exposed populations.

But so far, the agency hasn’t done that for people who live near factories releasing hazardous chemicals, said Eve Gartner, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law group. Earthjustice worked with a contractor and the coalition to compile and present the data to the agency.

She referred to the draft and at least one final chemical risk evaluation the EPA has released for the first batch of 10 chemicals it began to examine in 2016 and is working to complete this year. None of those documents has looked at the risks faced by people living near factories that release chemicals into the air or water, or onto land.

The 20 preliminary risk analysis plans the EPA released in April violated the chemicals law because they didn’t specifically identify potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulations the agency proposed to examine, said Gartner, 12 Democratic attorneys general, the Environmental Defense Fund, and a coalition of environmental, health, and labor groups.

The agency also excluded many other statutory requirements, they said.

“EPA is reviewing the comments and will take them into consideration as we develop the final scopes. The agency feels the draft scopes do address the items mentioned in the comments, including potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulations, in accordance with EPA regulations,” Block, the agency spokeswoman, said.

More Stringent Rules

If the agency looks at the Louisiana and Texas communities, it would have to acknowledge the excessive disease risk they face, said Wilma Subra, a chemist who has spent years working with coalition members. It should then require more stringent regulation of chemical manufacturers with factories around the two states’ coasts, she said.

The coalition consists of the Community In-Power and Development Association, representing residents of Port Arthur, Texas, and nearby communities. The other members are from Louisiana: the Concerned Citizens of St. John, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Mossville Environmental Action Network, 350 New Orleans, and RISE St. James, and two individuals living in St. James Parish, the Rev. Harry Joseph, pastor of a Baptist church, and Genevieve Butler.

These communities inhale the chemicals released into the air by their manufacturers, swallow them from well and other waters, and live near landfills and other sites where the chemicals have been dumped, Subra told Bloomberg Law.

The chemical exposures, combined with poverty, limited access to health care, and other stresses, increase residents’ risks of high blood pressure and other diseases, she said.

Those diseases have made communities more likely to die when faced with diseases such as the coronavirus, Subra said. She referred to the 70% death rate from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, that Blacks in Louisiana have experienced, according to Gov. John Bel Edwards (D).

‘Stunned’ By Data

Gartner, from Earthjustice, said it took months to gather and synthesize the information that companies report to the EPA.

“We were stunned by what an incredibly high percentage of the releases and the waste transfers were focused in that small geographical area,” Gartner said.

The Louisiana municipalities of Mossville, Sulphur, Carlyss, and Westlake occupy a fraction of U.S. square mileage and their population of around 203,000 is less than 1% of the nation’s, the coalition’s comments said. But about half of all nationwide releases of the solvent 1,1-dichloroethane, or 1,1-DC, that the EPA is looking at occur in the Mossville area, the coalition said.

More than half—58%—of nationwide releases of formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, occur in “Cancer Alley"—a highly-industrialized span along 85 miles of the Mississippi River, the coalition’s data found. Yet Cancer Alley constitutes only 0.5% of the country’s population, the coalition said.

Any individual factory’s chemical releases may be legal and comply with its permits.

But the cumulative impact on the communities from the combined releases of these chemicals should be examined, Subra said.

Bergeson, the attorney, said Earthjustice offered compelling data to support its view that TSCA required the EPA to include more information specifically—with respect to potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulations—than the agency’s draft scopes contained.

“If, as Earthjustice notes, EPA does not in each scope identify with particularity specific subpopulations believed to be at risk, this deficit could pose litigation vulnerabilities,” she said.

Averaging Exposures Hides Risk

If only a small subset of the population is getting exposed to these chemicals in air or water, but the EPA’s risk evaluations average exposures across the entire U.S., it will appear as if these communities get just a tiny exposure to these chemicals, Gartner said.

“But if you understand these chemicals focus like a laser on a small geographic area, you’ll see that inevitably puts those residents at particular risk,” she said.

Subra said she isn’t convinced the EPA will change course as it launches into its second batch chemical risk evaluations, this time for 20 chemicals. But she said she is optimistic over the long term.

“Whether it’s this administration or the next, we’ve submitted the data up front for an administration to come in and understand it has got to tighten the regulations,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Chuck McCutcheon at; Anna Yukhananov at