WSAZ Investigates | New EPA air quality report on cancer risk

WSAZ Investigates | New EPA air quality report on cancer risk
Published: Mar. 10, 2022 at 6:43 PM EST
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KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) - New data released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week is possibly painting a different picture about pollution of cancer-causing chemicals in the Kanawha Valley.

The most recent EPA report released in August 2018, based on 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment data, said two Union Carbide facilities in Institute and South Charleston emitted the toxic chemical ethylene oxide (EtO) at one of the highest rates in the country. The 2014 EPA data said the Institute plant produced an estimated 5,817 pounds of EtO and the South Charleston plant produced an estimated 1,656 pounds. Those levels created a cancer risk around the plants of up to 335 in a million from EtO emissions, which is more than three times higher than the hotspot designation of 100 in a million.

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This month, the EPA released a new AirToxScreen tool that is based on updated data from 2017. This information shows EtO emissions have possibly decreased in Kanawha County, with the Union Carbide Institute plant producing an estimated 1,739 pounds of EtO, and the South Charleston plant only releasing 202 pounds. Those new emissions amounts lowered the cancer risk around the plants below the hotspot level.

This new data came at the same time the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) released initial results for ongoing air quality testing around the two Union Carbide facilities. According to the WVDEP, the initial results showed less than one parts per billion was found. The Department said in a press release that’s the equivalent to “one second in a 32-year time span or one drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.”

WSAZ Investigates | WVDEP releases initial testing results for cancer-causing chemical

However, the emission levels used to create the cancer risk in the 2017 AirToxScreen are not completely accurate, according to EPA documents. Updated data that was not used in the calculation of the cancer risk shows the South Charleston Union Carbide facility actually produced an estimated 709 pounds of EtO, which is more than triple the amount previously reported.

“With the updated emissions information, it is possible that emission in that census tract would be over 100 in 1 million,” an EPA spokesperson said in an email. “When EPA updates AirToxScreen later this year, the Agency will remodel risk, based on 2018 emissions information.”

The EPA declined to do an on-camera interview with WSAZ for this story, but did have an expert on the AirToxScreen tool provide information over the phone. They said this update is due to new data that was sent to the EPA from West Virginia too late in the 2017 modeling process.

“We have about 40,000 facilities in the National Emissions Inventory, so we’re constantly getting updates and changes. Just in this case, it was the point we were in the process, we couldn’t incorporate that change in the risk calculations,” according to the U.S. EPA.

The EPA also said they can’t just plug the updated emission number into the calculation because, “There’s a lot of factors that go into it, including the modeling. So it’s hard to just take a change in emissions, because it’s dependent on how those emissions occur.”

Those factors include how many people live around a plant and if the chemicals are released through a smokestack or at ground level, according to the EPA. That prevents the EPA from comparing emission numbers directly between plants, and the EPA said it is why the 2017 data shows the Institute Union Carbide plant produced more ethylene oxide but the cancer risk around the South Charleston Union Carbide plant is higher.

“Seeing a significant drop like that could easily be significant. I mean, that’s a big difference,” WVU professor and air emission expert Michael McCawley said. “But again, it’s what are the sources of variability. So if you can, if you know what the sources of variability are, you can then account for that in your sample, you can say, ‘well, these kinds of things are going to make the numbers jump from a high number to a low number.’”

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People who live around the plants are still on alert about the possible risk of chemical exposure. Kathy Ferguson, who lives on a hill above the Union Carbide Institute plant, said she’s encouraged the trend is going down, but she is still concerned about the inhalable carcinogen.

“That is reassuring if the 2017 data is saying that, and certainly that is much more comforting to me, as a resident,” Ferguson said. “I think that would be for any person that would to receive that information. But again, it doesn’t belie the fact that there have been issues.”

Ferguson said she will not feel safe until there is no cancer risk around her house from the plants. The EPA said it is working with the WVDEP to reach that goal and help protect these communities.

“The EPA has reinvigorated its commitment to protect public health from toxic air emissions from industrial facilities – especially in communities that have already suffered disproportionately from air pollution and other environmental burdens for far too long,” an EPA spokesperson said in a statement. “We are on task to improve our data on emissions of toxic air pollution, communicate risks to the public, develop regulatory solutions, and deliver pollution reductions for American communities.”

WSAZ reached out to Union Carbide for comment about what is being done to reduce EtO emissions at the facilities, but we have not yet received a response.

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