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It’s Time to Do Right by the People in East Palestine, OH – and Elsewhere

Photo credit: CNN

By Stephen Lester.

Nearly 10 months ago, a Norfolk Southern train with more than 150 cars, many of which contained toxic chemicals, derailed in East Palestine, OH. Thirty-eight of the train cars derailed and a decision was made by Norfolk Southern to burn the contents of 5 tanker cars containing vinyl chloride and other toxic chemicals. This unleashed a huge black cloud full of particulates that enveloped the surrounding neighborhoods and farms in both OH and PA.

Immediately after the burn, people in East Palestine began reporting adverse health symptoms including headaches, nose bleeds, skin rashes, central nervous symptoms, thyroid problems and more. These and other adverse health problems have continued to plague the residents of this rural midwestern town.

EPA immediately responded by telling people that everything was alright and there was no cause for alarm. EPA’s testing found no levels of “concern.” But the people in East Palestine could not accept this narrative because they knew things were not right. They knew the health effects they were suffering from were real. They knew that EPA was not telling them the truth.

If EPA were honest with the people at East Palestine, they would have told them that they didn’t understand why people were continuing to report so many illnesses while their data told them otherwise. But if EPA did acknowledge how little is known about the link between adverse health effects and exposures to mixtures of chemicals, the people of East Palestine would demand action in the face of these uncertainties. Actions like paying for relocations so that they can stop being exposed to the toxic chemicals that are still in the air and getting the health care they need to move on with their lives.

The people in East Palestine deserve better. So do hundreds of other communities across this country where people have similarly been exposed to low levels mixtures of toxic chemicals. It is clear from the situation in East Palestine that very little is known about how people respond to chemical exposures, especially to low level mixtures. This is evident when the EPA and other public health agencies who rely on traditional toxicology and risk assessment are telling the people of East Palestine that everything is safe when it clearly is not.

It’s time to acknowledge that the scientific understanding does not exist to explain what is happening to the health of the people in East Palestine. It’s time to recognize that we cannot rely on traditional toxicology to answer the questions people have about their exposures to low level chemical mixtures. It’s time to do the right thing by the people in East Palestine and by hundreds of communities across the U.S. where people are being exposed to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals. It’s time to acknowledge that the tools we have are not able to answer the questions people raise about their exposure to toxic chemicals and give people the relief they are asking for, whether it’s cleanup, relocation, health care or something else.   

It’s what the government did for the Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange; for the atomic bomb victims exposed to radiation fallout; for the 9/11 first responders in New York City; for the soldiers exposed to burn-pit smoke in Iran and Afghanistan and other overseas locations; and for the Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina who drank contaminated water. Do the people of East Palestine deserve anything less than the soldiers and first responders who protect this country?

In each of these instances, the government recognized that the science linking exposure and health outcomes was incomplete and instead of requiring proof of cause and effect, they said, “Enough, we will take care of our own.” They moved to a presumptive scientific approach that allowed veterans and first responders to  health care and other compensation. We should do the same for the people of East Palestine and in hundreds of other communities that have been exposed to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals.

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When We Fight, We Win!

By Sharon Franklin.

In July 2023, I wrote the blog, “There’s An Ethylene Oxide (EtO) Health Emergency in South Memphis, Tennessee.” In it, I discussed the air pollution created by the Sterilization Services of TN (SELC) in Memphis, Tennessee. According to an August report by Adrian Sainz from AP News, SELC will officially be closing its Memphis plant!

As background, SELC is a medical equipment sterilizing plant that has been emitting hazardous air pollution since 1976 (permitted to do this since 1985). Ethylene oxide (EtO) is used to clean catheters, syringes, pacemakers, plastic surgical gowns, and other items. On August 24, 2023, the Memphis Community Against Pollution, an environmental watchdog group requested a meeting. This meeting was in response to public concern about the chemical emissions and to petition the Shelby County Health Department for an emergency air pollution order.

Even the EPA understands that the plant’s use of EtO to sterilize medical equipment and materials could lead to cancer and other health risks. While short-term or infrequent exposure to EtO does not appear to pose a health risk, the EPA determined that long-term or lifetime exposure to the colorless and odorless gas could lead to a variety of health problems, including lymphoma and breast cancer. For 30 years, the EPA has regulated EtO emissions; however, in 2016 new scientific information revealed that the chemical is more toxic than previously reported. In April 2023, the EPA proposed limiting the use of EtO after finding a higher than expected cancer risk at facilities that use it for sterilizations.

The EPA claims that it is working with commercial sterilizers to take appropriate steps to reduce emissions. It said that its proposal will reduce EtO by roughly 80% by targeting 86 medical sterilization facilities across the country. The companies will also have to test for the antimicrobial chemical in the air and ensure their pollution controls are working properly. EPA Administrator Michael Regan stated that the “EPA is taking action to ensure communities are informed and engaged in [all] efforts to address ethylene oxide…” The agency further stated that “it is committed to addressing pollution concerns associated with [EtO] ‘in a comprehensive way that ensures facilities can operate safely in communities while also providing sterilized medical supplies.’”

Raul Garcia from Earthjustice argued that “[now] that EPA has new information on precisely where the worst health threats are, the agency must use its full authority to… require fenceline monitoring at these facilities [and] issue a strong new rule.” She also stated that, “No one should get cancer from facilities that are used to sterilize equipment in the treatment of cancer.”

Amanda Garcia, Senior Attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, recognized that the Sterilization Services of Tennessee closing the Memphis plant is “a major victory for nearby neighborhoods who have been fighting for cleaner air.” She is “pleased that [the community] may soon be able to breathe easier.”  

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East Palestine, OH: A Scientist Speaks Out 

Photo credit: Michael Swensen / Getty Images

By Stephen Lester.

East Palestine, OH: A Scientist Speaks Out 

The situation in East Palestine, OH remains very frustrating for many residents. They are trying to make sense of the contrast between what EPA tells them with the many adverse health symptoms they are experiencing firsthand. Many residents continue to suffer from nose bleeds, headaches, skin rashes, thyroid problems and more caused by the horrific derailment and subsequent intentional burning of five tanker cars full of vinyl chloride. A highly toxic chemical known to cause cancer, liver damage, central nervous system and other adverse health effects. EPA continues to tell people that everything is fine and Norfolk Southern, the train operator, is tired of paying for temporary housing which some people have used to move out.

The letter below, reprinted in its entirety, is from an independent scientist who has taken air samples from inside the homes in of some people still living in East Palestine. This will give you some idea what people there are continuing to go through. The letter was addressed to the Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance and Ohio representative Bill Johnson. EPA has refused to respond to these independent test results and continues to ignore pleas for additional testing in homes in East Palestine. 

Senator Sherrod Brown, J.D. Vance

Congressman Bill Johnson

(sent by email)

Hart Senate Office Building, 201 2nd St NE, Washington, D.C. 20002

June 17, 2023

Dear Senators and Congressman representing Ohio:

I am a professor at Purdue University evaluating health risks of conditions that impact people and businesses in and around East Palestine, Ohio. I want to share important findings with you. After my June 10-12 investigation in East Palestine, I have serious concerns for the safety of children, adults, and businesses. During this, my sixth field investigation, I discovered, again, that acute chemical exposures are occurring inside some residential and commercial buildings near the derailment site and along the contaminated Sulfur Run. I provide four recommendations below.

There are still acute health threats inside buildings that agencies have yet to eliminate. Several buildings around the derailment site and along Sulfur Run still have the characteristic odor of chemical contamination. I have smelled it firsthand and we have been doing nearby environmental testing. Last week some occupants indicated that they became ill and have been avoiding certain buildings even after airing them out repeatedly. Some occupants have paid for indoor air testing which revealed butyl acrylate exceeding the ATSDR screening level, soot was present, and other chemicals present (e.g., ethylhexyl acrylate, benzene). Other occupants do not have financial ability to pay for indoor air testing, but I can confirm the odor was present. Norfolk Southern contractors did visit some buildings in February using inadequate air testing devices,[1] and in one case, their team left the building because of the unpleasant odor they encountered. Some occupants told me that Norfolk Southern said they will not help them because there is legal action against them. Some building occupants have told me they cannot spend more than 2 to 5 minutes inside their building without experiencing side effects. In February/March, the East Palestine Municipal Building (85 N. Market Street), where town council meets, was contaminated with chemicals from Sulfur Run. Agencies found chemicals entering through unplugged drain pipes beneath the building. This was corrected, but contamination in other residential and commercial buildings remains.

Actions needed are to:

  1. Decontaminate all residential, commercial, and government buildings surrounding the derailment site and along Sulfur Run. This will help maintain anonymity.
  2. Conduct chemical testing inside these buildings for soot and over several weeks for volatile organic compounds (VOC) and semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOC).
  3. Inspect and eliminate pathways where chemicals enter buildings from the Sulfur Run culverts that go underneath and alongside buildings (i.e., building pipes, drains, cracked concrete, sumps, etc.).

Evidence shows that this disaster has repeatedly exceeded the scientific and organizational capability of the USEPA and other agencies involved. You may consider recommending:

  • The assembly and charging of an independent team of public experts to advise decision makers about scientific issues with this disaster. Areas of expertise needed are air quality, water quality, materials, civil engineering, environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, public health, environmental health, epidemiology, groundwater, risk assessment, among others.

Please do not hesitate to contact me. I can be reached at


Andrew Whelton

Professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental and Ecological Engineering

Purdue University

West Lafayette, IN

[1] Borst and Bogardus. E&E News. June 1, 2023: EPA promised clarity, transparency after Ohio train derailment. But some air monitors didn’t work. – E&E News by POLITICO (

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Pyrolysis & Gasification Exemption: A BIG Win for Local Communities

Image credit: book cover for “Evolution of a Movement” by Tracy E. Perkins.

By Stephen Lester.

In a major win for grassroots community groups throughout the country, the USEPA decided last week to withdraw its plan to relax clean air regulations applying to pyrolysis and gasification facilities. After receiving 170 comments mostly opposing the agency’s plan to relax its regulations, the EPA said that it needed more time to consider the many complex and significant comments it received. And while it’s being reviewed, the current Clean Air Act rules that apply to pyrolysis and gasification facilities will stay in place.

This mean that these processes will continue to be regulated on equal footing to incinerators, as they have been for nearly 30 years. Pyrolysis and gasification facilities are currently regulated under the Clean Air Act, and are required to meet strict emissions standards that include emissions monitoring and reporting requirements.

The EPA proposed changing the rules that applied to pyrolysis and gasification facilities during the Trump Administration following heavy lobbying from the plastics industry and the American Chemistry Council. The plastics industry has been pushing hard to get the agency to redefine what qualifies as an incinerator and to exclude pyrolysis and gasification facilities from this definition. Currently, these facilities are considered under the same rules that apply to incinerators. Had this change in policy been approved, there would be no air pollution rules or regulations that pyrolysis and gasification facilities would have to follow.

Over the past year or so, the American Chemistry Council has invested billions of dollars into projects that use pyrolysis and gasification to burn waste plastics. This investment is in lock step with the plastic industry that is looking for ways to address the growing quantities of plastic waste that is generated each year. In a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the annual production of plastic is expected to triple by 2060 to 1.23 billion metric tons yearly, while only a small portion (~9 percent) will actually be recycled.

The American Chemistry Council has also been working at the state level to pass legislation that redefines processes such as pyrolysis and gasification as non-waste. This is so that these facilities could be regulated as “recycling” facilities that manufacture a product, an energy, or a fuel than can be burned. In this way, these facilities do not have to meet the stringent air and water quality requirements that an incinerator has to meet. According to Inside Climate News, 24 states have currently passed laws that recognize these facilities as being manufacturing rather than waste management.

While this is a big win for the many grassroots groups, and statewide and national environmental groups that sent comments to EPA opposing this rule change, the plastics industry and its partners will not let this go easily. No doubt they will continue to push EPA to make this change. They have already invested too much in this effort. We need to continue to be vigilant in opposing efforts to relax the rules that apply to pyrolysis and gasification facilities. Congratulations to all who contributed to this effort!

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Reducing the Reuse of the Recycle Sign

By Hunter Marion.

In 2021, California passed a law restricting the use of the classic recycling symbol upon products that are not truly recyclable. Last May, this law, and substantial complaints over the years, triggered an official comment by the EPA against the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This comment encouraged the FTC to update its Green Guides to regulate the symbol’s use more stringently amongst plastics companies.

At the heart of this issue, the EPA, several concerned environmental groups like Greenpeace and Beyond Plastics, and even the Biden Administration have found that the use of this symbol perpetuates plastic pollution and misleads consumers. This misleading stems from the linked usage of the recyclable symbol with “resin identification codes” (RIDs) on single-use plastics.

Simplified, RIDs range from 1 to 7, with 1-2 being plastics that are generally able to be successfully recycled, while plastics labelled 3-7 are instead trashed in landfills or incinerated. However, the general recycling populace usually knows nothing about these numbers, identifies the recycling symbol, and throws all their plastic into the same bin. Doing this creates a dramatic chokepoint for waste collection companies who must separate and sort the mixed plastics at their materials recovery facilities (MRFs). Consistently backed up and under pressure, a sizable portion of these plastics are not properly separated and are often dumped or burned.

While banning the recycling symbol for non-recyclable products would help cut down rampant waste and curtail decades of greenwashing, environmental advocates still push for the total reduction in plastics use by consumers entirely. Both Greenpeace and Beyond Plastics reported that in 2021 only 5-6 percent of the total plastic produced by the U.S. was effectively recycled. Over 400 million tons of plastic are produced every year, 42 million tons in the U.S. alone.

Greenpeace’s John Hocevar says that we “have to stop thinking of all this throwaway plastic as recyclable and treat it for what it is: a very problematic type of waste.” This should be the most important takeaway from this issue. Plastic, no matter how recyclable, is not a viable product that should be used on a mass scale. It should not be ubiquitous to almost every aspect of our lives. Instead, like Hocevar and Judith Enck from Beyond Plastics suggest, we should strive to distance ourselves from purchasing or using plastics in our everyday lives. Instead of getting fixated on the recycling portion, we should focus on the widescale reduction and, if possible, safe reuse of plastics rather than making more.

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Betraying the Public’s Trust – EPA’s Terrible Response to East Palestine, OH

Betraying the Public's Trust
Photo credit: Michael Swensen/Getty Images

By Stephen Lester.

Since immediately following the train derailment and intentional burn of toxic chemicals in East Palestine, OH, the USEPA has betrayed the public’s trust in government. The agency has put out a steady stream of statements telling people that everything is alright. They saw no reason to test for vinyl chloride, for example, even after the railroad company, Norfolk Southern, dumped 5 tankers cars into a ditch alongside the railroad tracks and then intentionally set it on fire. EPA did this with other chemicals as well.  

They continued to tell people that everything was fine even though they saw no reason to test for dioxin even though there was no question that dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals every tested, would be generated when the vinyl chloride was burned.

The Region 5 Administrator got into the act when she said that EPA couldn’t test for dioxin because they don’t know what the background is. Really? And when EPA reluctantly agreed to test for dioxin, they immediately said that they expected to find dioxins at levels consistent with background.

Soon after the testing began, EPA repeatedly and aggressively downplayed the presence of dioxins and other toxic chemicals in East Palestine while providing little if any data to back up their claims. The agency seemed much more concerned with controlling a predefined narrative than they were with honestly responding to the concerns and questions raised by the public.

This is confusing because the agency is very familiar with dioxins. They understand the serious health risks that exposure to dioxins poses. For more than 25 years, the agency studied the health risks of dioxins. Exposure to dioxins can cause cancer, reproductive damage, developmental problems, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, infertility in adults, impairment of the immune system, skin lesions and more. Yet the agency has been desperate to convince the public that there is no cause for alarm.

My guess is that they are pushing so hard because they don’t have answers to the many questions people are asking about dioxins. While it’s not easy to address these questions, it’s irresponsible for the agency to pretend that dioxins are irrelevant.

The EPA‘s mission is to protect human health and the environment. Clearly the situation in East Palestine is the place where EPA should follow its mission and do right by the people who live in this community. EPA must conduct testing for dioxins and other chemicals that is intended to tell people specifically what they have been exposed to and then analyze the results in a way that helps people understand the risks they face.

The people who live in East Palestine have a right to this information so they can make informed decisions about their future. If EPA continues to betray the public’s trust, then the agency will be responsible for people living for years without clear answers about what happened in East Palestine, OH.

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Why Are We Unprepared for Environmental Disasters?

Photo credit: Matthew Hatcher/Bloomberg via Getty Images

By Leila Waid.

The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, shows that our country is unprepared to address environmental emergencies adequately. Environmental disasters of the past show that accidents, just like human error, are inevitable. But how our society responds to these events can make all the difference. It can mean the difference between a life lost, and a life saved.

The Norfolk and Southern train derailment carrying toxic materials, such as ethanol and propane,  was not the first environmental emergency facing our country. Other human-made ecological disasters that have impacted the health and safety of the communities include the Love Canal toxic waste site, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Deepwater oil spill, the California fires caused by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and the Ringwood Mines Landfill Site.

There is no certainty that such destructive environmental events, like East Palestine, will never happen again, especially since there are an average of three train derailments per day. Of note, the Norfolk and Southern CEO, Alan Shaw, refused to support the Railway Safety Act of 2023 during the March 9, 2023 Senate hearing on the derailment. Shaw’s lack of commitment to safety improvements is even more staggering in the context of another one of the company’s trains derailing the morning of the hearing. During the hearing, Shaw also refused to commit to covering the healthcare costs of the community members impacted by the toxic fumes released into the air.

So, if it is likely that these events will keep happening and communities will keep facing environmental injustice. What can be done? One solution is to create a national response team within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), called the EPA National Response Center (EPANRC). Within this proposed EPANRC, a Rapid Response Team would be created that is tasked with monitoring potential environmental hazard scenarios and be equipped to respond quickly to various toxin-related emergencies. The proposed EPA Rapid Response Team (EPARRT) would consist of multiple experts with different skills, including toxicologists, epidemiologists, environmental health scientists, public health emergency planning officials, and communication experts.

A model like the one proposed already exists for other federal agencies. For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have protocols in place for when contaminations are found in the food supply, such as when E.coli was detected in lettuce. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also have various resources and teams in place to address infectious disease outbreaks. With the increasing number of actual train derailments and potential derailments, now is the time that environmental justice emergency issues are provided equal attention and the same amount of support at the national level, like the ones which already exist at the CDC and FDA.

How would an EPA National Response Center benefit the impacted communities? The guiding principle of the Center would be to protect the communities and empower them with timely and vital information. For example, if such a Center existed for East Palestine, it could have prevented the controlled burn of hazardous material in five train cars. In the Senate hearing, Eric Brewer, the fire chief who was one of the first responders on the scene of the accident, thought the decision to go from burning only one of the train cars to five as shocking and astounding. Scientists argue that the act of burning off the material in those trains released dangerous toxins into the air. Specifically, it could have caused the community to be exposed to dioxin, one of the most harmful toxins to human health.

One of the main themes expressed by the East Palestine residents is frustration with the lack of answers given to them by Norfolk and Southern, state, local and federal governments. The proposed EPA National Response Center (EPANRC) would have a framework for interacting with the community immediately and providing them with the most transparent information on a minute-to-minute basis. The EPANRC would not work in a bubble but instead organize and collaborate with the community leaders directly and immediately to provide them with necessary resources and information.

Another benefit of having the proposed EPANRC would be to address community issues directly and would not rely on the politics of the local, state or federal governments. Also, what is often overlooked, is that environmental disasters do not stay within the state or regional borders. The impact of these types of disasters affects communities that are miles away from the initial impacted community. For example, the train derailment in East Palestine happened right next to the Pennsylvania border. Now residents in Pennsylvania are just as harmed by the toxins, as those in East Palestine, Ohio.

Like the event in East Palestine, when an environmental disaster happens in a small town that does not have the resources to respond to it, that should not mean that the people in that location must suffer the consequences of having toxic air and water in their communities. This proposed EPANRC would make sure that all environmental disasters are handled with the safety of the people as the priority and would safeguard and allocate the resources to make that happen.

The bottom line: No matter where someone lives or what their zip code is everyone deserves access to a clean and safe non-toxic environment.

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The Rachel Carson Amendment

Our colleague and friend Lou Zeller at the Blue Ridge Environmental League (BREDL) shared an article he wrote a few years back about the great pioneer Rachel Carson who wrote in her epic 1962 classic Silent Spring that “If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”
Lou continued. “The public outcry created by Silent Spring led to a ban on DDT from agricultural use in 1972. However, today the industrial use of poisonous substances continues almost unabated, based on regulatory risk assessments and legally acceptable death rates. For example, retail shops are still permitted to dry-clean cloths with perchloroethylene, a carcinogenic solvent, even though non-toxic alternatives are available. Household hand cleaners laced with toxic Triclosan contaminate wastewater and sewage sludge deposited on farm fields as fertilizer. Nuclear power plants routinely spew radioactive Tritium into the air and water. And chemical giant Monsanto sells the weed-killer Roundup to farmers and homeowners—components of which are carcinogenic and known to damage the liver, kidney, brain and lungs. The list goes on.
“How can it be that after the passage of two generations we have let this continue?  Worse, a new natural gas extraction industry—cracking underground rock with high-pressure chemicals and water—exempts itself from the few environmental, public health and safety laws still on the books. It is indeed a strange blight creeping over the land.
“The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution states, ‘No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.’  The Fourteenth Amendment adds that the States may not, ‘deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’ Rachel Carson’s Fable for Tomorrow painted a grim picture, but it was meant to prompt action.  In part, she succeeded.  But it remains to us to ensure that the next forty years complete the changes necessary so our legacy to future generations is not a silent spring.  Either the fundamental principles established under the Constitution mean what they say, or Rachel Carson’s admonition should become the 28th Amendment to the Constitution.”
I think Lou is onto something. What do you think?

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EPA Grants Oklahoma Control Over Tribal Lands

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has granted the state of Oklahoma regulatory control over environmental issues on nearly all tribal lands there, TYT has learned. This strips from 38 tribes in Oklahoma their sovereignty over environmental issues. It also establishes a legal and administrative pathway to potential environmental abuses on tribal land, including dumping hazardous chemicals like carcinogenic PCBs and petroleum spills, with no legal recourse by the tribes, according to a former high-level official of the EPA.
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Photo credit: Pool photo by Al Drago via Getty Images

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Environmental agencies are violating civil rights laws — and the EPA is letting them

In the early 1990s, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality held a series of public hearings to consider whether or not to grant a permit to the Genesee Power Station, a wood-burning facility that was to be built in a low-income, predominantly Black neighborhood in Flint. The hearings were supposed to be an opportunity for the community to weigh in on the effects that the resulting pollution would have on their neighborhood, but the agency held the hearings 65 miles away, had armed guards present when speakers testified, and prioritized white attendees over Black attendees. The permit was approved, and pollution from the facility later led to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifying it as a “significant violator” of environmental rules.
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