East Palestine isn’t alone: Communities around the country grapple with toxic chemical exposure | The Hill

A view of the scene on Feb. 24, 2023, as the cleanup continues at the site of of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailment that happened on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio. (AP Photo/Matt Freed)

A February train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, shone a spotlight on the impact of toxic chemicals. But communities who are exposed to such chemicals on a more routine basis say they’re still waiting for the same level of recognition. 

“We’re glad that East Palestine is getting the attention that they’re getting, but we also need attention here in Louisiana,” said Shamell Lavigne, an activist with local environmental justice organization Rise St. James, which operates in the state’s infamous “Cancer Alley.”

The derailment in East Palestine released a number of chemicals, including a carcinogen known as vinyl chloride, which is used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic.

While officials have said it is safe to return to the area, locals have reported health issues and the incident has provoked widespread outcry from residents, environmentalists and leaders, including in Washington.

However, the East Palestine community is not the only one facing exposure to vinyl chloride and the risks that come with it. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxic Release Inventory — a list of self-reported toxic chemical emissions — more than 428,000 pounds of vinyl chloride was released into the air by 38 industry facilities last year.

The facilities with the largest releases are located in Texas, Kentucky, Louisiana and New Jersey. 

Companies behind the facilities that were the largest emitters say the chemical is important and stress that they have safeguards in place to protect their local environments. 

“Vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) is used to produce polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is widely used in a variety of products that impact people’s lives every day, from medical tubing and IV medicine/blood bags, to electrical wiring coating, to PVC pipes that deliver clean water to homes and businesses,” said an email from Westlake Corporation spokesperson Chip Swearngan. 

“VC plays an important role in our day-to-day lives,” said Fred Neske, spokesperson for Formosa Plastics Corporation, U.S.A.

Neske added that the company’s emissions are “ not comparable to the Ohio derailment.”

“The scope, scale, and processes involved are very different. Our operations involve manufacturing equipment in a tightly controlled environment that enables us to quickly respond to potential issues,” he said. 

But others say exposure to vinyl chloride is creating problems for locals. 

“We hear a lot from community members about respiratory problems,” said Kimberly Terrell, a research scientist and director of community engagement at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, discussing her work with communities in Louisiana.

“Vinyl chloride is known to damage the respiratory system, it’s also known to cause other health problems,” Terrell added. 

Vinyl chloride has been linked to liver, brain and lung cancer. It can also cause damage to the liver and nervous system, as well as joint and muscle pain and Raynaud’s phenomenon, which reduces blood flow to a person’s extremities. 

Louisiana in particular is home to an industrial corridor that has been nicknamed “Cancer Alley,” as residents are regularly exposed to a range of toxic substances. A 2012 study found that the area’s residents had a risk of developing cancer that was about 51 percent higher than the national average.

Local activists say that in the wake of the Ohio train derailment, their situation also deserves attention. 

Lavigne, of Rise St. James, said her area is home to so many different chemicals that her organization launched a “chemical of the month” education campaign to tell the community about the negative impacts of each one. 

“Right now the chemical of the month is chloroprene, next month it’ll be vinyl chloride,” Lavigne said in March, adding that the campaign had been ongoing since September.

Some changes are coming — EPA Administrator Michael Regan this past week visited Louisiana’s St. John the Baptist Parish, which includes part of Cancer Alley,  to announce a proposal that aims to cut down on how much of these chemicals plants are allowed to emit. 

The chemicals targeted by the rule include carcinogens such as vinyl chloride, ethylene oxide and benzene.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemicals industry, expressed concerns about the rule, saying the EPA “may be rushing its work on significant rulemaking packages that reach across multiple source categories and could set important precedents.”

Environmentalists, meanwhile, largely applauded the move as an important step forward. But some still say more action is needed to address the problems of industrial pollution. 

“With EPA’s proposals today, we are finally seeing a step in the right direction, but there is still much work to be done,” said a written statement from Sierra Club Healthy Communities Campaign Director Pedro Cruz. 

“Now, we must continue to demand that all illegal exemptions be removed from federal air quality rules to truly prioritize the health and safety of our communities over the corporate profits,” Cruz said. 

On the other hand, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) recently traveled to Asia to meet with executives of major chemical manufacturers — including a major manufacturer of PVC plastics — as part of an effort to encourage investment in the state.

​​”We expressed our gratitude for their extensive investments in Louisiana, our support for their commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and our readiness for additional investments in our state’s diversifying, future-focused economy,” Edwards said in a statement. 

Anne Rolfes, director of local environmental group the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, balked at the trip. 

“They see this destruction and assault on our health as economic development,” Rolfes said. 

Edwards’s office directed questions from The Hill to departments including Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ). 

Greg Langley, a spokesperson for LDEQ, said in an email that any new plants would require a permit and that their environmental impacts would be looked at closely. 

“The environmental impact of new facilities is carefully calculated. Just having a new plant does not automatically equate to more pollution,” Langley said.

Meanwhile, the Ohio train derailment has also given ammunition to those who would like to see vinyl chloride and PVC plastics eliminated entirely.

“The production of vinyl chloride in states like Louisiana and Texas is a major problem,” said Judith Enck, president of the group Beyond Plastics and a former regional EPA administrator.

“Vinyl chloride is toxic every step of the way, when you produce it, when you transport it, when you use it, and when you dispose of it,” Enck said, adding that her group would like to see a ban of the chemical.


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