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WSAZ Investigates | DEP spokesperson responds to Cancer-Causing Chemicals investigation

WSAZ Investigates | DEP spokesperson responds to Cancer-Causing Chemicals investigation
Published: Mar. 31, 2022 at 6:55 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - WSAZ has learned more about toxic cancer-causing chemicals the EPA said were being released into the air in Kanawha County at one of the highest rates in the country

Our original investigation in February found the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection had taken no action to get these chemicals out of the air and officials refused to talk with us about the issue.

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WSAZ was finally able to speak with the DEP’s spokesperson on camera, and he claims the DEP did not delay telling the public about these dangerous chemicals.

For years, thousands of people have been exposed to the cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide (eTO) in Kanawha County, but the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection just held its first in-person public meeting about the issue.

Dozens of people concerned for their health and safety showed up to ask questions to state officials about pollution around the two Union Carbide facilities in Institute and South Charleston.

Facilities the EPA says release ethylene oxide (EtO), a colorless odorless gas that can cause cancer.

We first introduced you to Kathy Ferguson in February. Ferguson’s home sits on the hill just above the Union Carbide Institute facility.

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In August 2018, the EPA identified that area and the area around the South Charleston plant as having a potentially elevated cancer risk from EtO emissions based off the latest data.

By March 2020, the EPA declared those same areas hotspots meaning there’s a likelihood that more than 100 in 1 million people could develop cancer.

However, it wasn’t until August of 2021 - nearly a year and a half later - when the DEP sent out a release finally notifying the public of the potential danger in this area.

So, we started calling and emailing, trying to talk with the DEP Spokesperson Terry Fletcher or DEP Secretary Harold Ward about this issue.

But none of WSAZ’s Brendan Tierney’s calls or voicemails were returned.

His requests for an interview in emails were either ignored or he was told, “we do not have anyone available at this time.”

Tierney even went to the DEP building in hopes of speaking with someone there.

So, we tried to catch up with Secretary Ward’s boss, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice.

All the governor told Tierney was, ‘The DEP is doing great work.’

The governor and DEP refused to speak with us. So, at the public meeting we finally got our chance to ask the DEP about this issue.

“These areas in Kanawha County were declared hotspots by the EPA in 2020, you guys waited until August of 2021 to send out a press release notifying the public about it. Why?”

Brendan Tierney, WSAZ reporter

“Actually, we sent out a press release in 2019.”

Terry Fletcher, DEP Spokesperson

“That didn’t say anything about Kanawha County, or these plants.”

Brendan Tierney, WSAZ reporter

“Right. The press release mentioned that the, you know, it was outlining the the new cancer risks associated with Ethylene Oxide. And, so we were trying to give the folks give people what we had at the time, the information we had at the time.”

Terry Fletcher, DEP Spokesperson

However, we found the agency did not release all the information it had at the time in the 2019 release.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request we filed with the DEP, we found multiple emails from 2019 that show the agency knew about the new data and potentially elevated cancer risk in these communities.

This email dated Nov. 18, 2019, from the DEP to the plants refers to them as “the hotspot facilities for ethylene oxide emissions identified by EPA”

“So you feel like the people in these areas were notified at the right time, even though that original press release didn’t say anything about these areas?”

Brendan Tierney, WSAZ reporter

“The the initial press release, again, was just outline the new information that we had about ethylene oxide.”

Terry Fletcher, DEP Spokesperson

But that’s not true. The copy of the release from 2019 only says West Virginia is among the top seven states for EtO emissions.

It never mentions the word cancer or any risk associated with the chemical.

It also never lists any specific locations despite those emails we told you about that referred to the Institute and South Charleston plants as “hotspot facilities.”

After our initial stories aired, the DEP sent out another release on Feb. 18, 2022, attempting to call our reporting into question.

It included a line that reads, “The WVDEP is not aware of the EPA declaring any of the areas within Kanawha County as a hotspot.”

“You sent out a press release saying that you were not aware of these areas were declared hotspots. But, as far back as 2019, some of your head scientists were saying that these areas were hotspots. Why is that?”

Brendan Tierney, WSAZ reporter

“I’m not aware of EPA, or anyone designating these areas as a hotspot until much later into the process. That’s not for us to declare if something is a hotspot or not. So I can’t really speculate more as to why they use the term that they did.”

Terry Fletcher, DEP Spokesperson

“Even though your scientists were using that term in relation to these plants.”

Brendan Tierney, WSAZ reporter

“I’m not aware of any of our scientists using the term hotspot.”

Terry Fletcher, DEP Spokesperson

“It’s in emails that you sent us as part of a FOIA request.”

Brendan Tierney, WSAZ reporter

“Again, you know, I’m not sure when what relation what context those emails were sent, as far as what why they designated it a hotspot You know, like I said, we weren’t aware of that term being used to designate these areas until later use by EPA.”

Terry Fletcher, DEP Spokesperson

“So even though you had already, we’re working to fulfill that FOIA request at that time that you had sent out that press release, you weren’t aware of that.”

Brendan Tierney, WSAZ reporter

“Again, I believe EPA is who designated the area as a hotspot. That was not our designation.”

Terry Fletcher, DEP Spokesperson

“So they did designate it as a hotspot.”

Brendan Tierney, WSAZ reporter

“I believe they did, but I’m not exactly sure what the timeline was on calling it a hotspot.”

Terry Fletcher, DEP Spokesperson

But, it appears that’s the complete opposite of what Fletcher wrote in the February 2022 press release, claiming the DEP was not aware that these areas were declared hotspots.

If we check the timeline, we found emails from the DEP to the EPA and the Union Carbide facilities using the word hotspot multiple times dating as far back as November 2019.

It took more than two months to get this interview with Terry Fletcher or anyone from the DEP.

We were finally able to ask the question we’ve been getting from the people, like Kathy, who live in these areas.

When asked if he believes it is safe for people to live in the area’s surrounding the plants, Fletcher said, “Um, you know, the cancer, or the potential lifetime cancer risk that EPA has come out with is based on a very conservative estimate of being exposed to high levels of EtO 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, over 70 years. You know, everyone has their own definition of what’s an acceptable risk. You know, our priority is to provide folks with the information they need, and to keep them informed, as well as continue to work within the regulatory framework to address any potential issues. You know, as we stated earlier, to the crowd, there are many folks in the DEP, as well as that are here today, with our Division of Air Quality that live in these areas, have lived here for a long time, are raising families have young children, and they don’t feel there’s any reason to be alarmed.”

Neighbors we spoke with say while they are concerned they appreciate the opportunity to hear directly from experts and officials.

People at the meeting were able to talk one-on-one with DEP experts about the dangers around these plants.

The EtO emission regulations are still not set to be updated until 2024.

The DEP has only sent us half of the Freedom of Information Act request documents we requested.

That totaled more than 12,000 pages and we are still working to go through them.

Keep checking the WSAZ app for the latest information.

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