WSAZ Investigates | Taking Cancer-Causing Chemical Concerns to Head of EPA
KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) - In an update to an investigation into cancer-causing chemicals in the Kanawha Valley, WSAZ’s Emily Bennett spoke with the head of the EPA about the issue.
As we have reported for nearly a year, the EPA said those chemicals are being released into the air in our region at one of the highest rates in the country.
The EPA says two Union carbide plants in Kanawha County release emissions of ethylene oxide, or EtO, a colorless, odorless gas that can cause cancer.
The areas around both those plants, which are located in Institute and South Charleston, were deemed hotspots for EtO emissions in March 2020.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection was supposed to make neighbors aware of the risk but waited a year and a half before ever saying a word in an August 2021 news release.
Since then, we’ve been trying to get an on-camera interview about the issues but have been ignored -- with neighbors left in fear for their health and safety.
Robbie Hendricks lives in the North Charleston area – an area most recently defined by the EPA as being at a level of concern for cancer risk from EtO emissions.
WSAZ’s Emily Bennett took the concerns of Hendricks, as well as many others, to Administrator Michael Regan, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Bennett: North Charleston residents have been living there for decades and they are worried because they are hearing what this cancer risk is. What would you tell someone who lives in that EtO risk in that North Charleston area?
Regan: I’d tell them that, number one the EPA is taking a very strong look at these risk levels. Taking a look at the regulations we have on the books to ensure that everyone in this country is protected. Number two, I’d like to say that EPA is providing resources to the state so we can get more monitoring in these communities, so that we have real actual data to insure that people are not in harm’s way.”
When we first started working on this story, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for communications about the issue between the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the EPA.
Through that FOIA request, we obtained emails showing those conversations about the hotspot areas - started back in November 2019. But again, the DEP stayed silent for nearly two years.
It was a concern Bennett asked Regan about directly.
Bennett: We know the EPA talked to the WVDEP about the risk but then they didn’t let the residents know for about a year and a half. Is that concerning to you that the residents were kind of in the dark?
Regan: No one should be in the dark. We are an administration that focuses on transparency and effective community engagement and so what I would say is we are going to work with the state to ensure that all residents have access to that information, but residents can be rest assured that we will also directly engage with them as well. It is very important that people understand the data and the information, so they know how to keep themselves healthy.
The most recent data used to determine risk is from 2018, but this year Regan says the EPA has been working with the DEP to conduct air monitoring in the areas around the plants.
He believes those results will help give the agency a much better idea of the current risk, results he plans for his agency to share with neighbors in person in West Virginia.
“At the first of next year, we’re going to hold a town hall,” Regan said. “We’re going to engage with stakeholders and let them know what we’re finding with these air monitors and what steps need to be taken to ensure their safety.”
We want to point out that the Union Carbide plants are operating within their permits, meaning they aren’t violating any state or federal laws on EtO emissions.
The EPA plans to review and potentially revise those regulations – but that isn’t set to happen until fall of 2024.
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