Last month, when news outlets around the country covered our press event revealing toxic phthalates in children’s Back To School supplies, we were proud of the work we’d done. Tens of thousands of Americans had been educated about how to avoid real risks to their children’s health.
Abandoned trailer, Mississippi River, Near Dow Chemical Plant, Plaquemine, LA, 1998. From Petrochemical America, photographs by Richard Misrach, Ecological Atlas by Kate Orff (Aperture 2012).
But as so often happens, absent from the coverage were the stories of the people who live near the chemical plants that produce the vinyl, whose land, air, and water has been harmed for decades by some of the most profitable companies in the world.
This month, CHEJ is proud to help present those stories in a way they have never been presented before.
Petrochemical America: Picturing Cancer Alley is a groundbreaking new collaboration by photographer Richard Misrach and landscape architect Kate Orff, debuting at Aperture Gallery and Bookstore in NYC tonight. Through haunting photographs and innovative composite images employing ecological and sociological data, gathered over the course of 14 years on the banks of the Mississippi river in Louisiana, the book and gallery exhibition provide a moving and deeply informed portrait of the American “sacrifice zones” upon which our use of plastics, oil, and gas depends. Read more about Plaquemine, LA, pictured above.
For those in New York City, we invite you to attend two free, upcoming gallery events:
Tuesday, Sept. 25th, at 6:30pm:A panel discussion with our own Mike Schade, joined by Ms. Orff and Wilma Subra of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.
Both events are free and include access to the exhibit. They will take place at Aperture Gallery and Bookstore, 547 West 27th Street, New York, NY.
Human mismanagement is turning lush cypress trees into ghostly poles, jeopardizing Louisiana’s bayou ecologies, local economies, and cultures. Requiem for a Bayou. From Petrochemical America, photographs by Richard Misrach, Ecological Atlas by Kate Orff (Aperture 2012).
As we continue to advocate in New York City to get PVC out of new construction, renovation, and school supplies in our public schools, projects like Petrochemical America help us and our supporters keep in mind the full scale of what’s at stake in shifting to a safer, more sane, and more just material economy.
Washington, DC — Public pressure is mounting for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen toxic air pollution standards at polyvinyl chloride (PVC) chemical plants, especially for two that were singled out for weak standards in a new set of rules that the agency released addressing emissions from nationwide facilities.
The newest action comes from over a dozen faith-based and socially responsible investors in a letter sent to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson today.
Nearly twenty investors, with more than $9.8 billion assets under management, including some who own shares in PVC plants, are calling on the EPA to reconsider the rule. In a letter submitted to EPA today, they write:
“Setting PVC industry emission standards that are weaker than EPA’s initial proposed standards is counterproductive to efforts begun by investors, community groups, and local regulatory officials to reduce the toxic burden in environmental justice communities.”
The latest letter builds on the concerns raised in a July letter signed by 60 national and local environmental health and justice groups and submitted to the EPA. The investor letter also attempts to reinforce the concerns that Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN) presented at the July meeting of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), a federal advisory committee to EPA. All of these efforts reinforce the petition Earthjustice filed in June on behalf of MEAN, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Air Alliance Houston, and Sierra Club in June asking EPA to grant reconsideration and issue a new, stronger air toxics rule without delay.
“As long term investors of persified portfolios we believe strong and consistent protections of public health and welfare are essential to long term economic growth, and in turn the prospects of companies in our portfolios,” said Susan Baker of Trillium Asset Management. “Communities in Mossville and Deer Park have the right to breathe clean air.”
According to the EPA, there are 17 plants in the United States that manufacture PVC resin, and they emit more than 1400 tons of hazardous air pollutants every year. These emissions include more than 270 tons per year of vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen. They also include benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and dioxins, all of which also are known human carcinogens, as well as probable human carcinogens such as acetaldehyde and formaldehyde. Dioxins are widely considered some of the most toxic chemicals on the planet, targeted for phase-out by 170 nations around the world.
The EPA’s emission standards for the plants in Mossville and Deer Park are especially weak, allowing these plants to emit toxic pollutants at far greater concentrations than other PVC facilities.
While initially proposing to grant these communities at least the same protection as those elsewhere in the U.S., the EPA then decided without warning or any opportunity for public comment to create special categories for these two sources, even though the agency recognized that the plants are similar to and could use the same types of pollution control technologies that are generally available and in use by other PVC facilities.
“We have been shouldering the burden of breathing this poisoned air for much too long, leaving us with unparalleled levels of disease and illness,” said Dorothy Felix of Mossville Environmental Action Now. “Advocates for clean air from all sectors will continue to call on EPA to strengthen these standards because it is clear that our communities were unfairly singled out.”
“Exposing communities to chemicals that cause sickness and cancer is not the way to keep our economy strong,” said Sister Judy Byron of the Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment. “These facilities have more than enough money to install protections that would limit the amount of poison people breathe.”
“Our community is continually exposed to cancer-causing pollution from the local PVC plant which spews its chemicals into our neighborhoods, schools and churches,” said Matthew Tejada of Air Alliance Houston. “For an agency committed to environmental justice to set weaker standards for PVC plants in communities that need protection the most is simply unacceptable.”
An explosion and raging fire at the Westlake PVC plant rocked Geismar, Louisiana a few weeks ago, sending a billowing cloud of toxic vinyl
Photo of Westlake PVC chemical plant after it exploded and caught on fire, releasing vinyl chloride and other toxic pollutants into the community.
chloride and hydrochloric acid through the community. The accident forced area residents and plant workers to shelter in place for several hours, shut roads, and even led to the closure of a 45-mile section of the Mississippi River.
The accident took place just one week before the Vinyl Institute was in NYC arguing PVC was perfectly safe. For some reason, they forgot to mention in their testimony that one of their plants had just exploded.
Westlake Vinyls makes 550 million pounds of vinyl chloride monomer and 60 million pounds of PVC a year. The company reports this is used to make PVC pipe, pipe fittings, vinyl sidings, bottles, flexible and rigid film and sheeting used for packaging, credit cards and wall coverings.
Check out this local TV news report (and see another at the bottom) on the accident:
“Even after the fire was out, a large white cloud could be seen still billowing from the plant.”
According to Westlake own reports to the EPA, its plant puts 589,558 people at risk due to the bulk use and storage of chlorine. An accident involving this chemical could potentially impact an area up to 25.00 miles downwind of the plant.
A History of Environmental Injustice
Low income and communities of color live downwind of the Westlake PVC plant. According to census data, 52.83% of people living within 3 miles of the facility are people of color. 445 people that live within 3 miles of the plant are below the poverty level.
This isn’t first time the plant has had an accident in recent years. On July 8 2010, over 900 pounds of vinyl chloride as well as other chemicals were released during another accident.
A number of other significant incidents and violations that have taken place at this location over the past twenty years, particularly when it was owned operated by Borden Chemicals and Plastics. This has been well documented in theUnited Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice report, From plantations to plants: Report of the Emergency National Commission of Environmental and Economic Justice in St. James Parish, Louisiana, which found:
“In March 1998, Borden Chemicals and Plastics and the federal government reached a settlement under which Borden would pay a $3.6 million penalty and clean up groundwater pollution at its plant in Geismar. The fine was described by a U.S. Attorney as “the largest ever for hazardous-waste law violations in Louisiana.” The settlement ended a case in which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency claimed Borden failed to investigate and clean up contamination at its site, failed to report toxic spills, and ran an incinerator without the proper license. Borden said in a news release that the penalty is “less than 1 percent of the $800 million judgment sought by the government.”
On December 24, 1997, a 500,000-gallon storage tank at Borden Chemicals & Plastics in Ascension Parish, Louisiana blew off its top “with a detonation heard for miles around, forcing the closure of Louisiana Route 1 and the voluntary evacuation of some neighbors.” Over a year before (August 22, 1996), equipment failure during the restart of Borden’s facility caused 8,000 pounds of “hazardous materials” to be released.”
In addition, Borden was charged in 1994 with shipping over 300, 000 pounds of hazardous waste to South Africa without notifying the US EPA, as required by law.
The Borden-Westlake-Formosa-Explosion Connection
The Westlake plant that exploded used to be operated by Borden. Borden also used to operate a chemical plant in Illiopolis, IL which was later taken over by Formosa Plastics. Interestingly, there was also a major chemical explosion and fire at this plant in Illiopolis a few years ago, which acclaimed author Sandra Steingraber has written about.
This explosion sent a plume of toxic smoke for miles around surrounding communities. Five workers were killed, four towns were evacuated, several highways closed, a no-fly zone declared, and three hundred firefighters from twenty-seven surrounding communities battled the flames for three days.
Did the Westlake Plant Release Deadly Dioxin?
Perhaps even more importantly, we’re very concerned that the fire and explosion sent a plume of toxic dioxin into communities and waterbodies downwind and downstream. Given that large quantities of highly toxic chlorinated chemicals burned for numerous hours, under uncontrolled conditions, you can bet dioxins and furans were released.
The question is – will EPA and the state DEQ launch an investigation?
Will they sample communities downwind for dioxin contamination?
As we ponder that, here’s another video on the accident:
The Center for Health,
Environment and Justice can help you and your community if you are facing an environmental health risk. From leaking landfills and polluted drinking water to incinerators and hazardous waste sites, we can help you take action towards a healthier future. Call us.