Regulating Air Toxics from Petrochemical Plants – State of the Planet

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued new regulations to reduce the amount of toxic emissions that petrochemical plants release into the air. The main impact of the rule will be to eventually reduce the health impacts of air pollution in the part of Louisiana called “Cancer Alley.” These are industrial plants that are located in African American and working-class neighborhoods. According to the EPA:

“…the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a final rule that will significantly reduce toxic air pollution from chemical plants, including ethylene oxide and chloroprene. EPA’s action will advance President Biden’s commitment to environmental justice by slashing more than 6,200 tons of toxic air pollution each year, dramatically reducing the number of people with elevated cancer risk due to toxic air pollution in communities surrounding plants covered by the rule. Once implemented, the rule will reduce both EtO and chloroprene emissions from covered processes and equipment by nearly 80%. A requirement for these facilities to conduct fenceline monitoring for key toxic chemicals is included, and EPA will make the data publicly available to better inform and safeguard nearby communities… Today’s action applies to certain equipment and processes at about 200 plants that make synthetic organic chemicals and a variety of polymers and resins, including neoprene…The rule also reduces additional air toxics, such as benzene, 1,3-butadiene, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride. By cutting emissions of these chemicals, the rule will reduce the risks of developing cancer from breathing in toxic air pollutants. In addition, the rule will reduce smog-forming volatile organic compounds by 23,700 tons a year.”

The chemical industry successfully lobbied for delayed compliance with the fenceline air monitoring requirements. As expected, they argued against the Biden administration’s effort to regulate chemical pollution of any kind. They complained about what they called the “onslaught” of regulation. I am always amazed at how this industry can oppose relatively small-scale efforts to reduce the worst poisons they emit. I wonder if it ever occurs to these folks that they might work on figuring out how to make chemicals without releasing toxics into the environment. Perhaps they could apply some concepts from industrial ecology or Total Quality Management (TQM) and figure out a way to reduce waste and put the materials they are releasing into productive use. Who knows, maybe they’d even save some money by being more efficient.

The petrochemical industry is a major cause of environmentally-induced cancers around the world but devotes few resources to reducing their release of poison. Their business model seems to require that they release toxics into the environment. One theory of the prevalence of cancer in the developed world is that due to improved diet, exercise, and health care, we are dying less from traditional causes of death and living long enough to die from cancer. However, another theory is that we have built our economy on a foundation of toxic substances that has made it far easier to be exposed to cancer-related and cancer-causing substances. I’m guessing that both theories have elements of truth in them.

One might argue that cancer is simply a baked-in cost of modern technology, and the answer is not to reduce the human-made causes of cancer but to figure out better ways of treating and curing cancer. Of course, we could do both—cure cancer and reduce the environmental hazards that can lead to cancer. That seems to be President Biden’s approach. The Biden administration has committed billions of dollars to the “cancer moonshot to end cancer as we know it”. This is a bipartisan effort that Biden first led when he was Vice President. This is a noble undertaking to understand the science of cancer’s causes and to develop possible cures. America spends far more money studying the health of humans than the health of ecosystems and our planet’s overall well-being. That is not surprising since the intense impact of cancer on people and families makes its treatment and cure emotional and highly personal. Those emotions help generate the resources required for scientific research. But an effort to cure cancer might well focus some attention on human-made causes. The regulation that the Biden team announced last week is, in part, justified as one element of the cancer reduction “moonshot.” The problem is that these few newly regulated chemicals are simply the visible toxic tip of a much larger iceberg. We don’t really know the impact of most new chemical combinations on human and environmental health because the pace of research to invent new chemical combinations far exceeds the pace of research to understand the impact of these new substances. The resources devoted to invention far exceed the resources devoted to understanding impact.

The successful effort of the chemical industry to resist regulation has reduced the incentives to develop safer chemicals. The result is that we live in a world that is increasingly toxic. As I often note, chemical safety suffers from the absence of the use of the precautionary principle required in the introduction of new drugs. We test drugs for side effects before they are introduced, but we don’t test new chemicals for their environmental impact before they are used. We are all simply canaries dropped down into the coal mine to see if there are any poisons in the air, and we only act after we can prove illness or death. It is a little pathetic that we consider it a major victory to finally be able to regulate chemical emissions that we know make humans sick and kills us.

Perhaps the most serious element of the toxicity of these chemicals is their persistence in the environment and in our bodies. That is why they are called “forever chemicals.” Because they last forever, they accumulate in our ecosystems, and as they concentrate from parts per trillion to parts per billion to parts per million, their negative impacts are likely to grow. Again, due to the absence of effective regulation, there is little motivation to research chemicals that may have the properties being sought but also could biodegrade. Of course, persistence may well be the major attribute the chemical is being created to achieve: A roof that lasts for centuries, an engine part that never wears out. This past February, when writing about our failure to regulate the toxics contaminating our planet, I observed that:

“Sophisticated chemical regulation could be… used to both protect the public and promote innovation. Unfortunately, since the Reagan era and certainly exacerbated by Donald Trump’s reflexive anti-regulatory ideology, our ability to utilize regulation creatively has been inhibited, if not destroyed. Evidence about the usefulness of intelligent and strategic regulation is drowned out by the rhetoric of anti-regulation. This is a theme I am increasingly focused on. As our economic life becomes more complex and its technology advances, we need to match that complexity with regulatory processes based on scientific expertise and an approach toward regulation that protects the public but is also sympathetic toward innovation and the introduction of new products. But coupled with that approach, we must include detailed and sound analysis of the impact of new chemicals and technologies on the living world.”

The Biden Administration deserves enormous credit for pushing back against the anti-regulatory wave that persists in American culture. Every effort to police those who carelessly poison us has been contested by red-state attorneys general in court, conservatives in Congress, and the right-wing media. Former President Trump is relentlessly and aggressively against all regulation and sees environmental rules as inherently anti-business. The judges he appointed when he was president seem to always look for a way to delegitimize regulation. My view is that regulations must be careful to promote innovation and should be accompanied by incentives for corporations to develop less-polluting alternatives to current products and production processes. Regulation is often perceived as anti-business because some regulators have never run a business and do not appreciate the complexities and constraints that inhibit corporate behavior. But business is far from blameless in their engagement with regulators. Many view regulators as intrusive and ignorant and view the regulatory process as a zero-sum game that they cannot afford to lose. They lose sight of the public interest in promoting their own private interests. We need to end performative and ideological regulatory debates and strive for effective regulation that protects the public while encouraging innovation.

The small steps taken by the Biden Administration to regulate forever chemicals are part of a growing record of environmental accomplishments that include protecting public lands, reducing greenhouse gasses, investing in environmental infrastructure, and preventing pollution. They have worked to promote environmental justice and focused their efforts on those most impacted by pollution. Biden receives less credit than he should from environmentalists, who may come to regret their criticism of his presidency if it contributes to a resumption of the environmental nightmare of a Trump presidency.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.


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