Prove your humanity

Ten environmental, community, and environmental justice groups petitioned a federal appeals court this month to review the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rule for ethylene production facilities, or ethane crackers, under the Clean Air Act. These facilities use ethane, a by-product of natural gas extraction, to make plastic feedstock. The groups, including EarthJustice and Pennsylvania-based Clean Air Council, say the new air toxics standards for these facilities are “unlawfully and arbitrarily weak.”

LISTEN to Julie Grant discuss the issue with The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple

There are currently 26 ethylene production facilities in the U.S., most of them in Texas and Louisiana, according to the court filings, with ten more on the way, including the Shell ethane cracker under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.

EarthJustice and other groups already won a case against EPA on this issue. In 2017, a federal court required the agency to update its rule for ethylene production. The new rule, published in July, is the result of EPA’s response to that lawsuit. 

Now, the groups are now challenging the new rule because they say the changes provide too much leeway to industry, and fail to protect public health. They also claim the agency’s rationale for these changes shifted after the comment period.

The rule had some good aspects to it that could improve air quality, according to Alex Bomstein, attorney with Clean Air Council. But it also opened up loopholes that are likely to exacerbate air pollution.

“Even to call it a loophole might be to simplify it,” Bomstein said. “It’s more like some Swiss cheese monstrosity, just providing for a lot of different ways that companies that do this all the time.”

One loophole described in the court filings allows equipment like pressure release valves to exceed pollution limits one or two times, every three years without any consequence. There could be dozens, or even hundreds of these valves at a plant, according to EarthJustice.

Fenceline Monitors, But Not Required EPA

While the Shell ethane cracker plant in Beaver County is expected to include monitors along the perimeter fencing, the EPA rule does not require it. Monitors like this can detect real time, actual data of air pollution coming from a facility. The groups say EPA currently uses outdated estimates of pollution loads.

What fenceline monitoring does, among other things, is it gives you actual readings of emissions at the fenceline at the border of the facility, so you’re capturing some things that don’t get captured in these estimates,” Bomstein explained.

In 2017, Shell signed an agreement with Clean Air Council and the Environmental Integrity Project, and plans to install continuous air monitors around its petrochemical complex in Monaca. The groups want EPA to require this at all ethane crackers. 

“We’re talking about thousands of tons of pollution that it’s projected to put out, that’s comparable to refineries,” Bomstein said. 

Fenceline monitoring is required at oil refineries, and these groups want people who live near cracker plants to have the same protections.

“If you have people with asthma in your family or… lung disease…for the vulnerable populations among us, it’s especially important to have transparency about what’s being emitted when and how people can avoid it,” Bomstein said.

Two pollutants mentioned in the court action, benzene and toluene, are known to cause health problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when people breathe in toluene, it can cause nervous system issues, headaches, and dizziness. Exposure to benzene in air can cause drowsiness, rapid heart rate and confusion. Long term, exposure of high levels of benzene can cause cancer, specifically leukemia.

The petition says the new EPA rule justifies acceptable health risks that go against the agency’s own long standing pollution benchmarks. The groups also claim that low-income communities and communities of color face disproportionate health harms from pollution released from these facilities. 

Why Now?

The groups are concerned about how quickly the plastics industry is growing. According to the lawsuit, the Department of Energy estimates that the country’s capacity for ethylene production is expected to increase more than 85 percent in the next 20 years. 

When we reached out to EPA, a spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Meanwhile, the American Chemistry Council and another industry trade group also filed a petition for review of this rule, challenging the agency’s rationale on specific requirements. Neither group would comment on their petition.

If the court agrees with the trade groups or the environmental groups, it could send the rule back to EPA, and the agency would need to again propose a new rule.