WSAZ Investigates | WVDEP requiring plant actions to lower cancer-causing chemical emissions

W.Va. Gov. Jim Justice had an announcement Wednesday that may come as a relief to neighbors concerned about cancer-causing chemicals in the Kanawha Valley.
Published: Feb. 22, 2023 at 6:58 PM EST
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KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) - In an update to our WSAZ Investigation, Cancer Causing Chemicals, when the EPA said certain chemicals were being released into the air in our region at one of the highest rates in the country, Gov. Jim Justice had an announcement Wednesday that may come as a relief to neighbors.

About a year ago, we told you about the two Union Carbide plants in Kanawha County both releasing emissions of ethylene oxide, also known as 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 by the EPA in March 2020.

The EPA says that means the risk for developing cancer is more than 100 in 1 million.

Wednesday morning, Justice announced an agreement had been reached between the Department of Environmental Protection and one of those Union Carbide facilities.

“The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has signed a collaborative agreement with Union Carbide’s Institute facility to implement additional measures that will reduce ethylene oxide emissions at the plant,” Justice said.

The agreement says that Union Carbide distributes ethylene oxide for use in chemical manufacturing processes.

While the agreement says the facility is currently in compliance with state and federal air regulations regarding EtO , it goes on to say that the Division of Air Quality ran a round of modeling in 2022 that found risk levels above 100 in a million in areas of Jefferson, Institute, and St. Albans.

We asked for specifically how much higher, and the latest maps and data show some areas risk levels were above 200 to 400 in a million. The agreement goes on to say the highest concentrations of EtO were predominantly from the western end of the Institute site where EtO is received by rail cars, unloaded, and distributed by pipeline.

Less than an hour after the governor’s announcement, WSAZ’s Sarah Sager spoke virtually with DEP spokesperson Terry Fletcher.

Sager: The rail cars, that seems to be a big part of this agreement. Can you walk us through the process of the rail cars? Where are they coming from? What are they carrying? When they get there it talks about a pipe. Can you walk us through the process of what’s happening there?

Fletcher: The rail cars are brought in from Louisiana or from the Gulf area down south from other Carbide facilities. They are brought in and they contain ethylene oxide. After they are brought on site that ethylene oxide is distributed to other customers within the Institute and South Charleston facilities. What we’ve found is there were higher level of emissions from our monitoring report. Consistently they had higher numbers. Part of the agreement is that they are going to be screening these rail cars to ensure that there are no leaks and if there are they will be required to take further actions to eliminate those leaks.

Sager: If these leaks do happen, how are they reported to you? How often are you all looking into them?

Fletcher: We have an inspection staff within our air quality division that will go to these sites and they will inspect and do monitoring. EPA also has enforcements that will routinely come on site to make sure the leaks are being addressed, and fixed, and monitored for. there is an element of self-reporting that facilities are required to do. that’s nationwide.

Sager: How often does that occur?

Fletcher: I’d have to look at what the exact enforcement schedule is. They are usually quarterly or bi-quarterly.

Sager: If I lived there, I’d want someone monitoring it every 12 hours.

In fact, the agreement it states that within 90 days of the agreement, the facility will monitor each rail car for EtO emissions within 12 hours of arriving at the facility.

Fletcher: That’s really going to fall on the inspectors and the self-reporting that we get from the facilities. The routine inspection schedule will ensure that those steps are being taken, and if they are not we will take appropriate enforcement action.

Tap here for detailed information about EtO sampling data from the WVDEP.

For previous coverage from WSAZ:

WSAZ Investigates | Cancer Causing Chemicals

WSAZ Investigates | DEP responds to cancer-causing chemical concerns