EPA eyes broader oversight of cancer-causing gas

By E.A. Crunden | 10/13/2021 01:13 PM EDT

EPA is set to ramp up scrutiny of facilities that do not currently report releases of a toxic gas as the Biden administration beefs up its environmental justice agenda.

EPA headquarters.

EPA headquarters. Francis Chung/E&E News

EPA is set to ramp up scrutiny of facilities that do not currently report releases of a toxic gas as the Biden administration beefs up its environmental justice agenda.

The agency said in a statement today that 31 facilities are receiving letters notifying them of the potential for reporting requirements related to their use of ethylene oxide, which is used in medical sterilization practices as well as in agriculture and other sectors.

Sites receiving the letters, EPA said, are likely to exceed a 10,000-pounds-per-year threshold under the Toxics Release Inventory for chemicals not covered by manufacturing or processing efforts. Some facilities will also receive notifications pertaining to releases of ethylene glycol, which is produced using ethylene oxide, meaning they can occur together.


"EPA is committed to taking action to protect people from exposure to EtO, especially children, workers and residents in underserved and overburdened communities," EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Michal Freedhoff said in a statement.

Freedhoff added that the move "will help inform EPA’s future actions and ensure that communities have access to the best information available so they can take necessary action."

TRI is a resource meant to help stakeholders gather information about industrial and federal facilities, including affected communities that may be exposed to contamination. President Biden’s EPA has focused on the inventory as a useful tool that can help bolster environmental justice goals in particular, given the disproportionate number of low-income communities and people of color living near relevant facilities.

In April, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the agency would expand chemical reporting requirements under TRI "to protect the health of every individual, including people of color and low-income communities that are often located near these facilities but have been left out of the conversation for too long." EPA emphasized both per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and ethylene oxide in its announcement (Greenwire, April 30).

But even prior to that announcement, ethylene oxide had been a source of contention for some time. The compound is a carcinogen posing severe long-term health risks for exposed communities. Industry members, however, maintain that ethylene oxide serves a critical public health role and that science does not justify a severe crackdown.

The notice from EPA gave the facilities a month to respond to the agency with relevant information to help reach a final decision on reporting requirements. EPA said that the move marks "the first stage of an ongoing effort to broaden TRI reporting requirements for contract sterilizers" and that it will continue to monitor additional facilities that could be added to the list.

Trump-era hangover

Ethylene oxide is a particularly sore subject for some critics after an April report from EPA’s inspector general.

The watchdog office found that top leaders in EPA’s air office under former President Trump blocked releases of data that showed possible risks from ethylene oxide to residents of the Chicago area. Those actions were not illegal, the Office of Inspector General concluded, but they flew in the face of EPA’s mission and hindered public health protections (E&E News PM, April 15).

At the heart of the drama are former agency air chief Bill Wehrum and his deputy, Clint Woods. Wehrum overrode a recommendation from a regional EPA official on releasing air monitoring data showing high ethylene oxide levels near a Chicago-area Sterigenics medical sterilization plant. That official worried the emissions would spark "another public health emergency like the Flint, Michigan drinking water crisis."

Wehrum, who had served in private industry and has since returned, quit EPA in 2019. Ethylene oxide has remained an ongoing fight for industry members in the time since, with companies that sterilize medical equipment ramping up lobbying late last year (Greenwire, Dec. 11, 2020).

Major players like the American Chemistry Council have also had an active role in the debate, pointing to an analysis from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality finding ethylene oxide is less hazardous than EPA had previously determined. Texas is home to a number of ethylene oxide-emitting facilities. Under Trump, EPA indicated it might consider TCEQ’s findings, sparking concern from groups that worried the agency would release a more benign risk assessment for the chemical.

In June, Regan said the agency would reconsider ethylene oxide’s cancer risks, granting an ACC petition over its 2016 Integrated Risk Information System assessment carrying a bleak outlook for the chemical’s health implications. ACC praised that move at the time, as did advocacy groups that said revisiting the determination could allow for a stronger crackdown (E&E News PM, June 22).

The Biden approach

Environmental groups have long argued that communities are left uninformed about exposure risks from pollutants. EPA has sought to bridge that gap with a series of public virtual meetings aimed at connecting with residents in Texas and Louisiana, both home to significant industry activity.

The agency kicked off those sessions in August, focusing on a total of seven communities across both states (E&E News PM, Aug. 10). While outcry over ethylene oxide has been widespread in states like Illinois, rural communities in the South have been less aware. An initial session catered to residents of Longview, Texas, where an Eastman Chemical Co. facility released around 4 tons of ethylene oxide in 2019, per TRI data.

Those sessions have faced some criticism over allowing industry members to participate and at times offer information counter to scientific findings. And EPA has faced additional pushback over its TRI emphasis from critics who say the system contains loopholes that allow industry to shirk reporting requirements (E&E News PM, Aug. 2).

Meanwhile, Joe Goffman, EPA’s acting air chief, has been engaged in a back-and-forth with EPA’s inspector general, who has been critical of the agency’s pace on air pollution cleanup plan approvals (Greenwire, Aug. 9).

Inspector General Sean O’Donnell has urged new reviews of ethylene oxide and another pollutant, chloroprene. But Goffman has resisted that push — leading O’Donnell to recommend a formal dispute resolution process to work through the standoff.

Goffman has separately asserted that the agency is unlikely to back down on the 2016 findings on ethylene oxide’s risk to the public.

"We stand firmly behind the ethylene oxide IRIS value," Goffman said in August.