The EPA faces questions about its approval of a plastic-based fuel with an astronomical cancer risk

That risk is 250,000 times greater than the level usually considered acceptable by the EPA division that approves new chemicals, and it’s higher than the lifetime risk of cancer for current smokers.

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SOURCEProPublica
Image Credit: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

Co-published with The Guardian.

The Environmental Protection Agency is facing a lawsuit filed by a community group and questions from a U.S. senator over the agency’s approval of fuels made from discarded plastic under a program it touted as “climate-friendly.”

The new scrutiny is in response to an earlier investigation by ProPublica and the Guardian that revealed the EPA approved the new chemicals even though its own scientists calculated that pollution from production of one of the plastic-based fuels was so toxic that 1 in 4 people exposed to it over their lifetime would be expected to develop cancer. That risk is 250,000 times greater than the level usually considered acceptable by the EPA division that approves new chemicals, and it’s higher than the lifetime risk of cancer for current smokers.

On Friday, a community organization sued the EPA in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., over the agency’s decision to allow a Chevron refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi, to produce the fuels derived from plastic waste, including the one that could subject people nearby to a 1-in-4 lifetime cancer risk. Cherokee Concerned Citizens, which represents residents in a housing subdivision close to that refinery, is asking the court to invalidate the EPA’s approval of the new chemicals.

Earlier in the week, the chair of the U.S. Senate subcommittee that oversees chemical safety questioned the head of the EPA over the agency’s approval of those fuels. Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, told EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a letter sent on Wednesday that he found what ProPublica and the Guardian discovered “especially troubling.”

“While it is urgent that our country takes actions to address climate chaos we need to ensure that the steps we take actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions and do not do so by sacrificing historically marginalized communities and those who are already overburdened by toxic pollution,” Merkley wrote.

The plastic-based fuels were given a green light under an EPA program designed to make it easier to create alternatives to fossil fuels. As ProPublica and the Guardian noted in the February story, making fuel from plastic is in some ways worse for the climate than simply creating it directly from coal, oil or gas. That’s because nearly all plastic is derived from fossil fuels, and additional fossil fuels are used to generate the heat that turns discarded plastic into fuels.

Federal law does not allow the EPA to approve new chemicals that have serious health or environmental risks unless the agency finds ways to minimize them. Yet, the agency approved the new plastic-based fuels without requiring lab tests, air monitoring or controls that would reduce the release of cancer-causing pollutants or nearby residents’ exposure to them, ProPublica and the Guardian found.

The sky-high risks and lack of safeguards for the people who would breathe pollution from the refinery’s smokestack are at the center of a lawsuit brought by residents of Pascagoula’s Cherokee Forest subdivision. The subdivision, which is near a number of industrial facilities, was inundated with cancer-causing pollution well before the new fuels were approved, as ProPublica reported in 2021, and the residents have been working for years to curb local emissions.

Barbara Weckesser, a resident who co-founded the group that’s suing the EPA, said she was surveying her neighbors about illnesses she fears are related to pollution just before she read about the approval of the plastic-based fuels on ProPublica’s website. “I was sitting down in my chair and I said holy — I won’t say the rest of it,’” said Weckesser. “Here we go again.” She noted that five of her neighbors are currently undergoing chemotherapy.

Katherine O’Brien, an Earthjustice senior attorney who represents the community group, said the law requires the EPA to address “unreasonable risks” presented by chemicals. The agency can impose specific limits or requirements that companies must follow and, when necessary, prevent them from making or using a chemical. “The community should not be subjected to additional emissions of novel toxic chemicals, particularly where EPA found that the chemicals will pose jaw-dropping risks to human health,” O’Brien said.

An EPA spokesperson on Friday declined to comment about the lawsuit. When asked about the fuels in February, a spokesperson for the agency said that the 1-in-4 cancer risk calculation was “a very conservative estimate with ‘high uncertainty,’” meaning that it erred on the side of caution in calculating such a high risk.

The spokesperson at that time explained that the EPA included plastic-based fuels in a program focused on biofuels because the initiative also covers fuels made from waste. As of February, the program had approved 34 fuels; 16 of them were made from waste. All 16 of the waste-based fuels were subject to consent orders, documents that the EPA issues when it finds that new chemicals or mixtures may pose an “unreasonable risk” to the environment or human health. Consent orders spell out the risks and specify the agency’s plans for mitigating them.

Asked about Sen. Merkley’s letter, the EPA said in a written statement that it “looks forward to the opportunity to clarify the record as well as its approach to reviewing” these new chemicals, “communicate more clearly about the risks associated with the submissions the agency has already reviewed, and discuss ways EPA plans to improve this approach in the future.”

In a written statement, Chevron told ProPublica and The Guardian in February that the company had followed the EPA’s process under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which regulates chemicals. The statement said, “We are taking steps to address plastic waste and support a circular economy in which post-use plastic is recycled, reused or repurposed.”

Chevron also recently created a webpage that it says answers questions raised by the community about the February article. On it, the company describes its new fuels as “part of an advanced sustainable recycling program” and notes that it has not begun to produce them. The website also describes the 1-in-4 cancer risk as “based on EPA’s initial risk screening.”

In fact, that high lifetime cancer risk was the EPA’s own calculation and was detailed in a final consent order that was signed by a manager at Chevron’s Pascagoula refinery and the director of EPA’s new chemicals division.

The Chevron website also says that the cancer risk “was taken out of context and doesn’t reflect how it would actually be done given the processes and safeguards we use every day at the refinery to ensure we do everything safely or not at all.” The company website says Chevron did a trial of the process about a year ago and found that “the refinery functioned normally” and emission levels “remained normal.”

The website says that the company “will not do anything that is unsafe for our workers or our neighboring communities. We will ensure it can be done safely or not at all.”

A Chevron spokesperson declined to comment about the lawsuit. Asked about Sen. Merkley’s letter, the company in a new written statement said it stood by its earlier comments and noted that the EPA review under the Toxic Substances Control Act “begins with an initial screening analysis to identify preliminary chemical risks. The next steps include adding workplace safety and environmental protections, which are also in that consent order.”

Chevron also wrote, “A variety of environmental regulations and permitting processes govern air, water and handling hazardous materials,” including the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. “Any responsible reading of chemical risks will be informed by these requirements.”

As ProPublica and the Guardian noted in February, the Clean Water Act does not address air pollution, and the new fuels are not regulated under the Clean Air Act, which applies to a specific list of pollutants. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act governs the management of waste.

While state regulators can add specific pollutants to permits that regulate air emissions, it would be difficult in this case, because critical details about the fuels were hidden by the EPA. The consent order even blacked out the names of the chemicals. The agency said that these basic facts were considered confidential business information.

The Environmental Protection Agency blacked out key information in this section of a consent order, which covers new Chevron fuels derived from plastic waste. Credit: EPA document obtained by ProPublica and the Guardian

In his letter, Merkley asked EPA Administrator Regan which federal rules and regulations apply to the air pollution emitted during the production of the plastic-based fuels. Merkley had other pointed questions for the agency, including why it approved the new chemicals without a more thorough understanding of their risks and how it plans to monitor their production to ensure environmental safety and public health.

Merkley — chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Chemical Safety, Waste Management, Environmental Justice, and Regulatory Oversight — reminded Regan that the EPA told the public the new fuels program supported a federal climate change plan that lists promoting environmental justice as a key goal. “How does the EPA balance or reconcile that goal with the increased environmental and public health hazards imposed by these new chemicals?” he asked.

Merkley also wrote, “So-called ‘chemical recycling’ has been touted by companies like Chevron as a way to reduce plastic waste through repurposing it but turning plastic waste into fuel increases greenhouse gas emissions, subsidizes the petrochemical industry, and harms frontline communities located near these facilities.”

The senator also asked for a list of all the new waste-based fuels approved and all consent orders issued under this program. ProPublica and the Guardian requested this same information earlier this year, but the agency wouldn’t provide it. Merkley gave Regan an April 30 deadline.

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