Trump EPA Air Office's “War on the War on Cancer”

The Trump EPA is trying to get some cover by holding a comment period and a few public hearings—listening sessions, where members of the public can register for up to five minutes of time to share an opinion or information with EPA—as it gives a wink and a nod to toxic fossil fuel polluters. I provided testimony that went something like this:

NRDC's Jen Sass at EPA Hearing

The Trump EPA Office of Air and Radiation (EPA-OAR, or the Air Office) is now headed by Anne Idsal, a former official at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) known for its coziness with fossil fuel polluters. Her climate denier credentials are well-established, “the climate has been changing since the dawn of time”.  (Idsal’s father owned the hunting ranch on which Dick Cheney shot his colleague while hunting quail).  

Texas TCEQ has long been angling to gut air pollution regulations that restrain the fossil fuel industry from spewing chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, and other life-threatening health harms. (See details in The Intercept report, The War on The War on Cancer, by Sharon Lerner, January 2020, and in a Chicago Tribune series by Michael Hawthorne)

Now, the EPA Air Office is seeking public comment on its proposed “Miscellaneous Organic Chemical Manufacturing” (MON) rule that would change the regulations for about 200 sources across the country that emit over 2,558 tons of hazardous air pollutants and 19,719 tons of volatile organic compounds, including almost 10 tons of the potent carcinogen ethylene oxide.

What makes the Trump EPA and fossil fuel industry efforts so insidious is that they are trying to hide political decisions by attacking the science, the evidence of health harms, by departing from the ethylene oxide cancer assessment of the EPA Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). The IRIS assessment is based on workplace epidemiologic studies—breast cancers in women workers, exposed through the normal course of earning a living and supporting a family. The human data is strengthened by rodent studies with evidence of cancer in blood and breast tissue, and cellular evidence that ethylene oxide is genotoxic and mutagenic. The IRIS assessment took 10 years to complete (from 2006 to 2016), including interagency review, external review, Science Advisor Board review, and multiple opportunities for industry and the public to comment (see details including industry interference in the NRDC ‘Delay Game’ report). All industry and public comments have been considered by the EPA and Science Advisory Board (SAB). The IRIS experts even published the key findings and addressed scientific issues (see blog by EPA retired scientist Dr. Jinot and published article at Jinot et al 2018).

U.S. health experts recently wrote a public letter to EPA defending the EPA IRIS ethylene oxide assessment as the best available science (see here and here).

A recent memo from IRIS experts details the rigorous science and expert judgement that went into the IRIS ethylene oxide assessment, including in its dose-response model selection and cancer risk estimates (EPA internal memo, Paul White to Kristina Thayer, 18 Oct 2019). The staff memo makes clear that for the Final IRIS assessment, the staff had fully vetted all data and model output options and followed the recommendations of its Science Advisory Board. The final assessment represents neither the highest (most health protective) nor the lowest (least health protective) risk estimates. The final IRIS cancer assessment best fits the facts (the scientific data), the SAB recommendations, peer review, and the staff expert judgment. It was done in a public and transparent manner following IRIS process for transparency and scientific excellence, which was developed in a transparent manner including National Academies review and approval (NAS 2014; NAS 2018). Even the requirement in the IRIS assessment for additional protections for pregnant women and children (early life exposures) to ethylene oxide are consistent with established peer reviewed EPA IRIS guidances for cancer-causing chemicals (see EPA Guidelines for Early Life Exposure to Carcinogens).

In contrast, a recent review of the IRIS program by the US Government Accountability Office specifically flagged recent problems caused by the Trump EPA, including starving the program of resources (GAO 2019).

It is unclear why EPA requested this memo, which falls outside of the IRIS process and does not appear to be the type of document an individual staff member in IRIS has done in the past after a final IRIS value has been settled and published.  The 2016 IRIS assessment is the final, peer-reviewed document the air office must consult, and stands alone as the authoritative word on the best available science. The White memo summarizes information that EPA’s IRIS program and SAB considered and provides further explanation for why only the final 2016 IRIS value itself reflects the best available science. The memo’s discussion of uncertainties, which always exist in risk assessment and which IRIS already considered when finalizing the 2016 ethylene oxide factor, is not a valid basis for the air office to use a factor weaker than the IRIS value in rulemaking. 

The fossil fuel petrochemical industry and its Cancer Lobby, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), have long sought to gut the IRIS program (see details in my blogs here and here). In fact, Texas TCEQ has even proposed its own risk factor for ethylene oxide—3,500 times weaker than EPA’s - which would essential mean that polluters could keep causing cancers, business as usual. 

EPA Air Office political appointees and fossil fuel polluters have offered no new data and nothing new to say. Any departure by the EPA Air Office from using IRIS assessment risk estimates would be an outrageous departure from EPA guidelines and established processes for transparency, and public accountability, and a violation of public trust.

It is past time for communities to be protected from harmful industrial pollutants. EPA’s Environmental Justice experts wrote a public letter calling on EPA to protect people from ethylene oxide, including from MON sources (NEJAC, May 2019).

The top 100 air pollution ‘hot spot’ communities are spread across a number of states, including Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Colorado, West Virginia, Texas, Illinois, and Delaware (see The Intercept, A Tale of Two Toxic Cities by Sharon Lerner, Feb 2019). However, the EPA Air Office proposed rule would affect communities over much of the country (see Earthjustice materials for details):

  • There are 38 MON chemical plants in Texas. There are about 17 MON chemical plants in the Houston Ship Channel.
  • Louisiana has 17 MON chemical plants (including Denka and Sasol, and many in the Baton Rouge-Geismar corridor, including some that EPA data show emit EtO). A proposed petrochemical complex (Formosa) seeking to add toxic air pollution in St. James would be covered by the MON.
  • There are MON plants in 33 other states: AL, AR, CA, CT, DE, FL, GA, IA, IL, IN, KS, KY, MA, ME, MN, MO, MS, NC, ND, ND, NE, NJ, NY, OH, OK, PA, SC, TN, VA, WA, WI, and WV.

Earthjustice legal experts, representing pollution impacted communities, set forth the following recommendations:

  • EPA should adhere to the scientific determinations of its Agency experts, and apply the cancer risk determinations for ethylene oxide that as described in the IRIS assessment;
  • EPA must finalize all of the proposed improvements– including emission reductions that the Clean Air Act requires (such as for flares, leaks, storage tanks, and vents, and removing the unlawful exemption for emissions during startup, shutdown, and malfunction periods);
  • EPA must require fenceline monitoring and additional emission reductions to reflect developments, ensure there is no uncontrolled pollution, to prevent all unacceptable health threats, and provide an “ample margin of safety to protect public health” under the Clean Air Act. For example, EPA must require stronger leak detection and repair and prohibit leaks; require further limits and reductions in emissions from flares and pressure relief devices; require emission reductions in other equipment and require actions like fenceline monitoring and preparation for storms that will prevent releases before they happen (such as safer design, regular maintenance, effective shutdown and startup planning, and other recommendations by the Chemical Safety Board and other experts). 

Earthjustice reported from a similar meeting held two days earlier in Texas. The Houston-based environmental justice organization, t.e.j.a.s. told EPA their community is suffering: “We cannot applaud EPA for doing the bare minimum, because the agency is not even doing what it knows is needed to protect people’s health, based on the best available science,” said Juan Parras, t.e.j.a.s executive director, at the hearing. “EPA also cannot avoid ensuring that facilities use up-to-date pollution controls, and practices, including real-time fenceline monitoring, to protect public health. People in Texas deserve the strongest protection available for our health.”

NRDC stands in solidarity with t.e.j.a.s. and the many other communities suffering needless and illegal petrochemical pollution. EPA scientists and experts did the math—now the Air Office needs to take the work of the IRIS program and move forward with health-protective regulations.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.