WSAZ Investigates | Officials refuse to answer questions about cancer-causing chemicals
KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Cancer-causing chemicals are being released into the air in Kanawha County at one of the highest rates in the country, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
WSAZ tried to talk with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) about this issue for more than a month before our initial story aired earlier this week, but they refused to talk with us. Since then, we have continued to try to get answers for our questions, and the DEP said they are not doing any interviews.
The EPA said ethylene oxide, known as EtO, is being released from the Union Carbide facilities in Institute and South Charleston. EtO is a colorless, odorless gas that can cause cancer.
Around 12,000 people live in an area the EPA identified in August 2018 as having a potentially elevated cancer risk from EtO emissions. By March 2020, the EPA declared that same area 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. However, near this plant in Institute, that risk is actually more than three times higher with 335 in a million people who could develop cancer from EtO emissions.
Last September, the DEP held a virtual public meeting to answer questions from community members. Since then, we’ve been collecting data and asking questions to see what’s actually being done to protect these people, but we haven’t been able to get any answers.
WSAZ has continually reached out to DEP communications director Terry Fletcher but none of our calls has been answered and none of our voicemails has been returned. Every time WSAZ asked for an interview, our requests were either ignored or we were told, “we do not have anyone available at this time.”
After our initial story aired this week, we sent a link to our investigation to Terry Fletcher’s boss, DEP Cabinet Secretary Harold Ward, once again asking for an interview. Ward never responded to us, but we did get an email from Fletcher 48 hours later that said Ward forwarded our message to him. Fletcher reiterated that the DEP would not be answering questions on-camera about this issue and said, “all the information the agency has on this issue has been provided.”
However, on Jan. 19, we asked for all communication between the DEP and the EPA, as well as all communication between the DEP and Union Carbide. At the time, we were told they were working on responses and should have something to us by the following week. That was nearly a month ago and, to date, we have received zero documents.
So, we took this issue to the DEP Secretary’s boss, Gov. Jim Justice. WSAZ formally requested an interview with Justice but never got a response.
We then went to the West Virginia Capitol on Thursday to talk with the governor after his scheduled virtual COVID-19 press briefing.
When asked about the toxic cancer-causing chemicals being released into the air, Justice said, “the DEP is doing great work.” WSAZ then asked if the DEP will finally do an interview about the topic, and Justice answered, “well Brendan, I really frankly don’t know.” Finally, we asked Justice if he is talking with the EPA about this issue and what he is doing to protect people that live in these hotspots. Justice said, “we are in touch with everybody. The DEP does great work, Brendan.”
WSAZ then attempted to ask the Governor’s Office communications staff for an interview with Sec. Ward or anyone else. Our questions were ignored as they walked behind closed doors into an office.
We sent our original investigation on this topic to U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, as well as the state senators who represent this area of Kanawha County. They all responded and have agreed to talk with WSAZ about this issue or share their thoughts in a statement.
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