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WSAZ Investigates | Cancer-Causing Chemicals; what’s being done to address concerns

WSAZ Investigates | Cancer-Causing Chemicals; what’s being done to address concerns
Published: Mar. 31, 2022 at 11:25 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) – As a follow-up to our investigation about cancer-causing chemicals that the EPA said were being released into parts of the Kanawha Valley, we look at what’s being done to assess and address concerns.

We’re talking about the chemical ethylene oxide (eTO), a colorless, odorless gas. The EPA had labeled the areas around two plants in Kanawha County as hotspots for eTO emissions.

Since then, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has started air testing around the facilities. To date, no steps have been taken to reduce the amount of chemicals in the air.

From our initial investigation, we’ve been telling you about these two Union Carbide facilities -- one in Institute, the other in South Charleston about the eTO emissions.

In 2018, the EPA identified the areas around both plants as having a potentially elevated cancer risk from eTO emissions based upon the latest data. By March 2020, the EPA declared those same areas hotspots, meaning that more than 100 in 1 million people could develop cancer.

For months, we’ve been trying to speak with someone at the WVDEP about concerns we’ve been hearing from the people who live around the plants, but we were either ignored or told “no one is available at this time.”

So, when the WVDEP held its first public meeting about eTO concerns last weekend, we were there and ready to ask questions.

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

The WVDEP said it started testing the air around the plants in January to get updated data on emissions. They say the results of the first round of testing showed much lower amounts of ethylene oxide.

At the public meeting, we got to speak with Alice Chow from the EPA about the newly released second round of test results from the WVDEP, which showed higher concentrations in the air.

Chow said the difference between the two sets of results likely comes down to operations at the facilities -- and weather.

“It depends on the wind,” Chow said.

She also says up to 40% of emissions nationwide come from leaks that can be prevented by monitoring more frequently and lowering standards.

“It’s unbelievable how much emission reductions you can have, because you are doing leak detection before it technically becomes a leak,” Chow said. “So you’re just gonna fix it. And by doing that, you really are having some, you know, contributing to reducing the emissions, because when you reduce the emissions, you’re going to reduce the risk.”

WSAZ’s Brendan Tierney discussed the issue at length with Chow.

Tierney: “What type of difference would that technology in those monitoring is making this community?

Chow: You know, I don’t know offhand … I would suspect because Union Carbide and all the facility, those are in both these areas, they have, they probably already have a huge leak detection and repair program. The question is whether or not if there are areas that are leaking more than others, and maybe this monitoring effort might be able to point out: hey, this part of this monitor is leaking way more than the other ones. What’s going on in this area? That will help that will help define things you may not have, for your whole plan, do everything like that, but you might be able to do something in this particular area that would reduce the emissions from this area to reduce the risk.”

Chow said the EPA first released data showing the increased cancer risk around these facilities in 2018. So, we asked the WVDEP what it’s been doing beyond testing the air to reduce this cancer risk and protect the community.

Tierney: “Have you been talking with these plants at all about potentially putting limits in place or any other opportunities to reduce leaks or other things like that?

WVDEP spokesperson Terry Fletcher: “Sure. Yeah. We’ve had conversations with the facilities. They’ve been very cooperative. You know, part of our process is, has been getting more updated emissions data. As we mentioned earlier, a lot of facilities had overestimated their emissions. So, we’re getting more accurate idea of what their actual emissions are, as well, as, you know, they’ve also overestimated what the concentrations of ethylene oxide using their processes. So, we’re getting a better idea of what actual concentrations they’re using. And that has, you know, those steps along with, you know, monitoring more frequently than what the rules require. Have, you know, obviously helped drive down some of those emissions.”

Tierney: “When would you expect to see those limits in place or protocols to reduce emissions?”

Fletcher: “Sure. So the regulations for ethylene oxide are set at the federal level, you know, the EPA is set to review those in 2024. So … once they do their review of these regulations will be, you know, we’ll be reviewing those and, and implementing them through the state Legislature like we do for all of our rules and regulations.”

Tierney: “Why not talk with the plants earlier? And try to get them to reduce them now?”

Fletcher: “Sure. So, like I said, we’ve had conversations with the, the facilities, and, you know, part of the, the process of gathering more updated emissions data, and gathering more site specific data is to better, better gauge where and how they can reduce those emissions. So, part of this process has just been identifying, you know, the best ways that can be best ways that we can implement any reductions that may need to be implemented.”

When EPA data showed the cancer risk around these plants was much higher than the EPA’s benchmark level, the WVDEP asked the WVDHHR to do an assessment of the cancer registry around the plants.

Our initial investigation found an assessment was completed... But when asked for the report -- a spokesperson said in an email, “no formal report exists.”

Tierney: “What are the main cancer concerns that are associated with this chemical?”

Steve Blankenship, DHHR epidemiologist, who completed the 2019 assessment: “The literature says that exposure ethylene oxide is mainly associated with female breast cancer, lymphomas and leukemias.”

Blankenship said just two weeks ago, the WVDEP asked him to put together this formal report using the data from his original assessment, despite our request of that same data in January.

Blankenship says the formal report shows Kanawha County does not rank in the top 10 counties for any cancer associated with eTO.

“Nothing is causing a reason for concern for me,” Blankenship said. “The area’s most closely associated with this ethylene oxide concern, centered around these facilities are not the areas that have the highest rates of ethylene oxide cancers. So, it does not appear that the two are connected.”

We’ve also asked the WVDEP if the Union Carbide plants are taking any of the precautions the EPA mentioned other plants are taking -- like closer monitoring of any leaks.

Fletcher told Tierney we had to ask Union Carbide about that, so we forwarded them the message but have not yet heard back.

The WVDHHR says it is in the process of updating its report based on the latest cancer data from the area around these plants.

The new report will be completed by the end of May and will include data all the way back to 1993.

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