EPA Watchdog Report Reveals a Failure to Talk to Communities with Higher Ethylene Oxide Health Risks

April 2, 2020 | 1:22 pm
Photo: Roy Luck/Flickr
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

The EPA’s watchdog, the Office of Inspector General (IG), released a report this week that highlights how inadequate EPA’s communication around the hazardous air pollutant, ethylene oxide, has been in communities that need information most. The IG’s report confirms what communities have been saying for months and recommends that EPA take urgent action to engage with all communities near ethylene oxide-emitting facilities to let them know about the real and present dangers associated with exposure.

The lack of communication matters because communities deserve to be informed about the potential health hazards they face and it is EPA’s duty to communicate this information. In fact, as the report points out, it’s written into the agency’s mission statement: “[a]ll parts of society … have access to accurate information sufficient to effectively participate in managing human health and environmental risks.” This information often forms the basis of community-led advocacy efforts for environmental justice, which is why communication should not just be accurate and frequent but should be a dialogue to ensure that all needs are being met.

Report finds EPA needs to rapidly communicate EtO risks to the public

It turns out, that despite touting risk communication as a priority for EPA, Wheeler’s actions on ethylene oxide have been disappointing to say the least. The IG found that EPA has not reached out to the majority of communities near high risk facilities. Communities near 65 percent (16 of 25) of high-risk facilities identified by EPA’s data as contributing to unacceptably high cancer risks were not afforded a public meeting or any other type of engagement by the EPA to give them much-needed information about those risks. While EPA has plans to hold meetings in five of those locations, 11 (most of which are located in Texas and Louisiana) are still lacking any type of risk communication plan. According to the IG report, “as of January 2020, regional, Louisiana, and Texas state agency personnel had not communicated with the communities near the high-priority facilities.”

In EPA’s January response to the draft IG report, Associate Deputy Administrator Doug Benevento wrote that it would “support, as requested, state-led efforts to communicate risk information to residents in communities near these facilities,” allowing notoriously lax state environmental departments to take the lead and continuing to fail the communities near these sites. Texas is not only failing to engage its own residents on this issue, but it has launched a process to weaken the ethylene oxide limit that will be used to screen air permits in the state.

EPA is also toying around with using this weaker limit rather than its own more health-protective Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) risk value to set future standards and technology requirements at the federal level, which would be an incredibly damaging departure from the best available science. Last month, Earthjustice submitted comments on behalf of Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, California Communities Against Toxics, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S.), Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Environmental Integrity Project, Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, People Concerned About Chemical Safety, Air Alliance Houston, Sierra Club, and UCS advising the agency to use the IRIS risk value and do everything in its power to protect communities from this cancer-causing pollutant.

Communities of color are systematically sidelined by the EPA

In 2016, EPA’s IRIS classified ethylene oxide as “‘carcinogenic to humans’ by the inhalation route of exposure.” More than 100 communities across the United States are exposed to ethylene oxide concentrations above the level IRIS deems safe. Data released by the EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment in 2018 revealed that long-term exposure to ethylene oxide is significantly contributing to higher cancer rates in some of the areas located close to facilities that emit the chemical.

However, the EPA has often paid far less attention to communities of color and low-income communities, in some cases not visiting the communities and not informing residents of their exposure to the cancer-causing gas. Despite learning of the risks at the same time, EPA has been less responsive to the needs of residents in Lake County, Illinois, a majority low-income community, with a large number of Spanish speakers and people of color, located 40 miles north of Willowbrook, an affluent and predominantly white community. This is also evident in EPA’s near absence from Texas and Louisiana, especially in a LA region known as  “Cancer Alley.” While this phenomenon is not new to environmental justice communities, the Trump administration has made matters worse.

Risk communication? More like PR spin

Administrator Wheeler has spent a lot of his tenure at the EPA talking about the value of risk communication and claiming that it’s a top priority for him. “Risk communication” continues to pop up in EPA’s brochures and press releases on lead, Superfund, PFAS, and ethylene oxide, but given the details of this IG report, what is Wheeler accomplishing? Strong and effective communication requires accurate information, trusted messengers, and appropriate audiences. By failing to listen to the science, use EPA’s own experts to communicate it, and ensure that all impacted communities are meaningfully engaged in EPA’s process, Wheeler is failing to improve EPA’s risk communication game. It seems like risk communication isn’t about helping communities at all and is more of a public relations maneuver to appear to be meeting EPA’s mission as they undermine the very protections that keep those communities safe from risks. As Wheeler makes a fuss about the IG report, EPA is actively working to remove the very risk values used to ensure industry is keeping levels of ethylene oxide low enough to protect public health.

During a time of crisis, EPA must increase efforts to protect environmental health

The IG report suggests that the EPA urgently provide opportunities for community engagement on ethylene oxide, but it is up to the EPA to figure out how to do so at a time when social distancing is preventing large gatherings across the country. Consideration must go into how a virtual hearing would be accessible to households without internet or individuals who are balancing working one or more jobs in addition to childcare. Sadly, rather than accept the need for these opportunities for public comment and dialogue, hold true to his promise to prioritize risk communication, and be a leader on ensuring public access to information and securing public health,  Administrator Wheeler has blasted the report and asked its own IG to rescind it. This is an unprecedented move, as agencies tend to understand the objectivity and value of their own watchdogs to identify and help root out government waste, fraud, and abuse.

Over the past few weeks of watching our federal, state, and local governments manage response to a public health emergency, it has never been more apparent that accurately communicating risk is of paramount importance. While the type of hazard and level of risk is different with an air pollutant like ethylene oxide, the same principle applies. We know polluting industries are not stopping business as a result of this pandemic, and in fact, ethylene oxide use is likely ramping up to sterilize much-needed protective gear for health care workers across the country. The EPA should be tackling these challenges, hearing from impacted communities, listening to its scientists and communicating equitably how it is making decisions that stand to impact the air we breathe.