Ecological catastrophe

EPA Finalizes New Rule Requiring More Than 200 Chemical Plants to Reduce Toxic Emissions

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced April 9 a set of final rules under sections 111 and 112 of the Clean Air Act (CAA) to significantly reduce toxic air pollution from more than 200 chemical plants in the United States.

The plants affected make products such as synthetic organic chemicals, plastics, paints, synthetic fabrics, pesticides, petrochemical products, and various polymers and resins, including neoprene. The new rules strengthen protections for communities living near these industrial facilities, especially along the Gulf Coast, and it is anticipated the rules will result in a reduction in the number of people in these communities with elevated cancer risk by 96 percent. 

Notably, the last time the EPA updated pollution limits for chemical plants was back in 2006. This rule is only the latest of a series of actions by the Biden administration to protect communities from ethylene oxide (EtO) and chloroprene emissions originating from sterilizing facilities (see ELM’s recent EtO rule finalization coverage here).

EtO, which is considered a human carcinogen, is used to produce antifreeze, pesticides and sterilizing agents, while chloroprene, which is listed as a likely human carcinogen, is used to make synthetic rubber for shoes and wetsuits. For EtO, the rules set a threshold of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of average emissions before a plant is required to take action.  Plants must meet the requirements for reducing EtO within 2 years. For chloroprene, the rules set two action levels of 0.8 and 0.3 micrograms per cubic meter of average concentration at fence-line monitoring sites and requires a facility to reduce emissions if exceeded. However, with respect to chloroprene, the rules must be implemented within 90 days.

Once implemented, the rules will reduce more than 6,200 tons a year of over 100 air toxins and will reduce EtO and chloroprene emissions from covered processes and equipment by almost 80 percent, the equivalent of nearly 54 tons of EtO emissions per year and 14 tons of chloroprene per year. The rules will also reduce smog-forming volatile organic compounds, including dioxins and furans, by 23,700 tons per year.

In addition, regulated plants will be required to conduct fence-line monitoring for EtO, chloroprene, vinyl chloride, benzene, 1, 3-butadiene, and ethylene dichloride. The EPA will then make the data available to the public. Moreover, for all six pollutants, plants must find the source of the pollution and make repairs if annual average air concentrations of the chemicals are higher than a specified action level at the fence line, which varies depending on the pollutant. 

As expected, the rules have been met with mixed reactions. While some agree that the expedited timeframe for chloroprene pollution is a positive aspect of the rules, they believe that the reduction in emissions does not go far enough to protect communities. On the other hand, certain members of the regulatory community have called the rules’ health risk assessment scientifically flawed and based on outdated emissions data. Others tout the rules as an important step forward for environmental justice, in part due to the EPA’s analysis of the cumulative risk communities face from these chemical plants in combination with other major industrial sources of air pollution. 

The rule will become effective 60 days after its publication in the Federal Register.