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The PPM Blog

EPA’s Overhaul on Chemical Plant Rules Has Environmental Justice Written All Over It

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the cameraContributed by Isaac Smith, Principal, PPM Consultants

On April 9, 2024, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a final rule that is meant to drastically reduce emissions of hazardous air pollutants (HAP) and certain air toxics from a wide range of equipment and processes at chemical plants that make synthetic organic chemical manufacturing industry (SOCMI) and polymers and resins (P&R) industries. Although the regulation will reduce multiple HAPs, the reductions were focused on ethylene oxide (EtO) and chloroprene, mainly due to their linkage to causing cancer. According to the EPA, once fully implemented, the rule will reduce more than 6,200 tons per year (tpy) of over 100 air toxics, including a reduction of 54 tpy pf EtO emissions and 14 tpy of chlororpene. This equates to a reduction of approximately 80% of each chemical as compared to current levels. Although rule updates are fairly routine, this is probably the most sweeping rule change since the Refinery Sector Rule updates nearly a decade ago.

When I started putting this article together, I was thinking more about the new requirements and which of our clients were possibly getting pulled into the rule, but once I started gathering some research on the update rule, especially its background, I realized the updated regulation has somewhat of a convoluted path, with lots of twists and turns, even more so than other air regulations. For those of you who hate all the acronyms involved in environmental air regulations, I apologize in advance, but for those of you who relish the “technocrat lingo” of air permitting, take a deep breath, because you may have trouble containing yourself.

EPA’s Role in Assessing Air Toxics

The EPA has multiple offices and programs who focus on various aspects of chemical hazards, including air toxics. In 1985, EPA created the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) Program that identifies and characterizes the health hazards of chemicals found in the environment. IRIS assessments provide toxicity values for health effects resulting from chronic exposure to specific chemicals. The IRIS assessment represents the first two steps of the risk assessment process and when combined with human exposure pathways and exposure scenarios, yields the Risk Characterization. In 2010 EPA conducted an IRIS assessment of chloroprene and classified the chemical as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans”. The IRIS assessment was followed by the 2011 National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA). The NATA is a screening-level assessment for the entire United States that provides a snapshot of outdoor air quality based on emissions of air toxics.

Chloroprene in Cajun Country

The NATA’s 2011 modeling results, released in December 2015, indicated concentrations of chloroprene were present at levels of concern in the community of LaPlace, Louisiana, home to a large neoprene manufacturing facility that utilizes chloroprene in the elastomer process. In 2016, both the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) and EPA began ambient air monitoring around the facility to determine if the modeled concentrations could be confirmed. The resulting air monitoring campaign indicated the ambient levels of chloroprene were present at elevated levels. Ever since the results of the initial air monitoring, the LaPlace facility has been the focal point for chloroprene levels for years and has been under pressure by LDEQ and EPA to reduce chloroprene emissions. Following the implementation of emission controls at the facility, chloroprene stack emissions have been reduced by 85% and EPA air monitoring data have shown corresponding significant reductions of chloroprene concentrations in the community. More detailed information regarding EPA’s response to the levels of chloroprene in LaPlace can be found here.

EPA’s Trip Down “Cancer Alley”

There are more than 200 affected facilities located across the United States, but the vast majority them, ~ 150 in total, are in Texas (TX) and Louisiana (LA). Additionally, many of the LA facilities are located in an area often referred to by industry opponents as “Cancer Alley”, an 85-mile stretch of communities along the banks of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. “Cancer Alley” is not necessarily a ringing endorsement for anyone seeking to relocate to the area, but EPA Administrator Michael Regan traveled to the area multiple times over the last few years. In November 2021, Administrator Regan took what was referred to as the “Journey to Justice” tour across parts of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. EPA said the purpose of the trip was to “spotlight longstanding environmental justice concerns”. Administrator Regan said, “The pollution concerns have been impacting these communities for decades. Our actions will begin to help not only the communities I visited on this tour, but also others across the country who have suffered from environmental injustices”. In April 2023, Regan returned to Louisiana, specifically LaPlace, ground zero for the chloroprene debate, to announce the proposed rulemaking. As noted above, the rule impacts facilities heavily concentrated in Texas and Louisiana, which mirrors much of the area visited by Regan’s “Journey to Justice” tour.

In conjunction with the 2023 proposed rule, EPA conducted a first-of-its kind community risk assessment to determine how the proposed rule would affect cancer risk from air toxics exposure. Additionally, the EPA opened a civil rights investigation to determine if the state of Louisiana violated the federal Civil Rights Act with how it regulated chemical plants in “Cancer Alley.” However, in June 2023, the Louisiana attorney general filed a lawsuit over the civil rights investigation and shortly thereafter, the EPA abruptly closed the investigation.

As a part of the community risk assessment, the EPA examined the impacts of the proposed requirements on air toxics-related cancer risks in communities within ~6 miles of large chemical plants, including facilities that would not be covered by the rule. The assessment indicated that the rule would reduce the toxic-related cancer risk by 96% in those communities.

Statutory Requirements under Clean Air Act (CAA)

This updated EPA rulemaking was a result of the CAA requirement for the EPA to: review the NSPS best system of emission reduction (BSER), the NESHAP Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards for major sources of HAP, and conduct both technology and residual risk reviews.

Often, the risk review and technology review are combined and commonly referred to as a risk and technology review (RTR). The BSER, MACT, and RTR reviews must be conducted every 8 years, although the EPA has been deficient in meeting this timeline more than once over the years and many cases the BSER, MACT and RTR reviews are conducted with little fanfare or change to the associated regulations, but then there are situations that warrant updates to the regulations.

I could go into more detail and provide another list of acronyms as long as my arm, but to simplify things, the EPA’s RTRs determined both chloroprene (2010) and EtO (2016) were both found to have unacceptable cancer risk values. The finalized rulemaking includes four new NSPS (VVc, IIIa, NNNa, and RRRa) and six updated existing MACT regulations (F, G, H, I, U, and W).

What are the new requirements?

While there are many new and wide-ranging requirements depending on your source category and process equipment, we’ll cover a few of the more widely applicable updates. The emissions reductions in the rule result from a range of requirements, including obligations to improve the efficiency of flares that are used to control emissions from facility processes. EPA is also finalizing stronger standards for heat exchange systems, process vents, and storage vessels as well as removing general exemptions from emissions control requirements during startup, shutdown, and malfunction (SSM) events. Perhaps one of the most challenging and impactful requirements included in the rule is that of fenceline monitoring for six key pollutants:  EtO, chloroprene, benzene, 1,3-butadiene, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride. There is no de minimis level of emissions required to trigger fenceline monitoring. Instead, the rule states, ….owners and operators of an affected source that uses, produces, stores, or emits one or more of the target analytes must conduct fenceline monitoring for the analyte(s) at their site.

Facilities must begin monitoring in relatively short order. Monitoring for chloroprene at neoprene production sources must begin within 90 days after the rule takes effect whereas monitoring for the other 5 chemicals must begin within two years. Upon facilities designing and installing a network of fenceline monitors, collecting and reporting data, the EPA will post the quarterly results online where they’ll be available to the public, similar to existing benzene fenceline monitoring requirements at petroleum refineries.  If the annual concentrations reach certain “action levels”, the facilities must determine the cause and make necessary repairs. The action levels vary for each chemical and based on the source.


While putting this article together, it became evident to me that this updated regulation may be the first of its kind in the sense that it was largely impacted by the EPA and Biden Administration’s focus on EJ. When you combine Michael Reagan’s trip to “Cancer Alley” to announce the proposed rule and the assertion the state of Louisiana violated the Civil Rights Act in how they issue permits, its hard to ignore the role that EJ appears to have played in the updated rulemaking. Simply using the term EJ seems to elicit a strong response from nearly everyone, but those responses are often from opposing viewpoints. Regardless of what you think about EJ, if the updated rulemaking significantly reduces the risk of cancer in “Cancer Alley”, then I think most, if not all of us would think that’s a good thing. Maybe in a decade or so they’ll have to come up with a new name for the 85 mile stretch of road in Louisiana, one with a slightly more positive ring to it.

Links to other articles or websites on this topic are provided below.

Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturing Industry: Organic National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) – 40 CFR 63 Subparts F,G,H,I | US EPA

SOCMI Fact Sheet

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