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WSAZ Investigates | Cancer-Causing Chemicals

Published: Feb. 14, 2022 at 8:22 AM EST
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KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Toxic, cancer-causing chemicals are being released into the air in the Kanawha Valley at one of the highest rates in the country, according to United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data. WSAZ found no government action has been taken to reduce the risk.

The EPA said the two Union Carbide facilities in Institute and South Charleston release so much ethylene oxide, known as EtO, that the area has a cancer risk more than 300 times higher than the agency’s national benchmark of one in a million.

Ethylene oxide is an colorless, odorless gas that the EPA declared a cancer causing carcinogen in 2016. The EPA identified the area around the Union Carbide facilities in August 2018 as having a potentially elevated cancer risk from EtO emissions. By March 2020, the EPA declared the same areas a hotspot, meaning there is a likelihood that at least 100 in a million people would develop cancer if they breathed air containing the same amount of air pollutant every day for 70 years. Near the plant in Institute, that risk is actually more than three times higher with a 335 in a million people who could develop cancer from EtO emissions.

“When they say it’s a carcinogen, that’s the highest level that you can get. It’s not like stage one or stage two, it’s literally a cancer-causing agent,” Kathy Ferguson said. She is one of more than 12,000 people who live within the areas the EPA declared a hotspot. “We’re scared to death, we’re scared to death for our community, just as a whole in terms of what we can be exposed to.”

The West Virginia Department Environmental Protection (DEP) sent a letter in January 2020 to the EPA asking the agency to review the current standards to further reduce emissions of EtO. However, it wasn’t until August 2021 when the DEP sent out a release finally notifying the public of the potential danger and launched a website with additional information. Since then, the DEP has only held one virtual public meeting and started testing the air around these plants.

WSAZ started asking the DEP questions about EtO and what is being done to protect the community around these chemical facilities. The DEP’s spokesperson, Terry Fletcher, declined multiple interview requests to talk on camera with WSAZ for this story and has not returned a Freedom of Information Act request asking for the DEP’s communications with the EPA and Union Carbide related to EtO. WSAZ also requested to talk with DEP Cabinet Secretary Harold Ward, but Fletcher said no one was available for an interview at this time.

Fletcher instead directed WSAZ to the EtO website that was created to provide updates about the issue. That website includes a section titled “What is DEP Doing to Address the Concerns of EtO.” The first item listed says the DEP asked the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) to complete an assessment of the cancer registry for the area surrounding the plant. That assessment did not find elevated cases of cancer due to EtO, according to the website, so WSAZ asked the DHHR for a copy of the report. A DHHR spokesperson said the assessment was completed but no formal report exists.

That lack of communication and action to get these cancer causing chemicals out of the air have left residents like Ferguson feeling ignored and forgotten by the agencies who are supposed to keep them safe.

“I think that the chemical companies, and I think even our leaders haven’t done a good job of helping to inform the populace,” Ferguson said. “I feel like Horton Hears a Who very often, and we’re just crying out and nobody can hear us.”

The DEP and Union Carbide both said in statements that the plants are in compliance with their current EtO emission permits.

“Safety and integrity are at the core of Union Carbide’s operations,” spokesperson Tomm Sprick said in a statement. “We remain dedicated to reducing ethylene oxide emissions to a level that meets or out-performs EPA regulations and our own aggressive company sustainability goals. We take, and have always taken, emissions seriously and believe it is important that measurement and modeling techniques are subject to ongoing development and improvement over time. Union Carbide complies with all federal, state and local regulations and examines its emissions data on an ongoing basis, working closely with the appropriate regulatory bodies to ensure the highest standards of emissions reporting.”

“If they are complying with the rule, that’s fine,” EPA regional air quality analysis chief Alice Chow said. “But we’re talking about a toxic that affects the community, and there are disadvantaged communities that are vulnerable, that are overburdened. Complying with a regulation doesn’t necessarily mean that is sufficient enough. We could possibly go in there with the state to negotiate for any additional work practices, or something like that.”

Those regulations are set to be reviewed by the EPA in the fall of 2024, Chow said. The high levels of EtO could be coming from leaking pipes or old equipment at the facilities, but Chow said the EPA will not know for sure until after additional air quality testing is completed.

“Monitoring your area is not going to resolve your problem,” Chow said. “Monitoring is going to tell you this is what you got. Now, how do we go about reducing these concentrations? That’s a whole other issue. Right now, we’re monitoring. How we’re going to resolve it, those are the next steps we have to think about.”

WSAZ asked Fletcher for a copy of the first test results that were completed on Jan. 26. Fletcher said it would be months before those results could be released, so WSAZ wanted to do our own testing. We hired an independent company do to air testing in the areas around the Union Carbide plants. Those results should be ready in the next couple of days and we will share those results with you as soon as we get them.

“It would just be nice to be in an area where you could breathe freely, without sort of any thought of something happening to you,” Ferguson said.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was aware of this issue and working to fix it before seeing our WSAZ Investigation into EtO emissions in Kanawha County, a spokesperson said. Manchin supported a bill that was signed into law last November that reinstates a “superfund tax” to make it more costly for companies to use chemicals like ethylene oxide.

“(Sen. Manchin) continues to monitor the situation in Institute and is engaging with the EPA and Dow Chemical Company leadership to ensure every West Virginian has clean air to breathe and clean water to drink,” the spokesperson said.

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is Ranking Member of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee which oversees the EPA.

“Ethylene oxide is a pollutant of concern in communities around the country, and it’s an issue my staff and I are tracking at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee as we continue to conduct oversight of the EPA,” Capito said in a statement to WSAZ.

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