WASHINGTON (SBG) — An invisible gas posing a potential cancer risk in towns all over America may be disproportionately affecting minority and low-income communities. Spotlight on America first investigated the colorless, odorless gas known as ethylene oxide last September. Now, new details are emerging about the toll Ethylene oxide, or EtO, takes on marginalized groups, as some communities are rising up to fight against it.
Sharon Lavigne lives in an area of Louisiana called 'Cancer Alley'. The name comes from the concentration of facilities whose pollution some say contributes to an increased risk of cancer.
Today, she says she's leading a life and death battle to save her community, St. James Parish, by fighting against plans for a major new chemical plant slated for the area. The fear is if approved, the estimated $9 billion Formosa Plastics facility would emit toxic ethylene oxide into the air of a community Lavigne and other activists say is already impacted by pollution. (See company's response below)
"If this industry comes in here, just like they say on death row, 'we're going to die'," environmental activist Sharon Lavigne told Spotlight on America. "It's that serious."
Ethylene oxide is often used at chemical plants and medical device sterilization facilities has been labeled a carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization.
According to the EPA, long-term exposure can increase the risk for certain kinds of cancer, including breast cancer in women. The EPA's Inspector General recently identified 25 of the highest priority communities in the country because of their elevated cancer risk associated with EtO emissions. According to the OIG's report, five of those areas are in Louisiana, with the government naming the following facilities as emitting EtO that impacts the area of concern:
Louisiana is among the most hazardous locations when it comes to EtO in the air. According to recent federal data from the National Air Toxics Assessment, St. Charles Parish in Louisiana has an EtO-related cancer risk of nearly 709 per 1 million people. In 85% of America, the cancer risk from EtO is less than 1 per 1 million people. When it comes to assessing the public health threat and better protecting marginalized communities, Lavigne has major support. More than 10 different organizations in at least five states including California, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, and Ohio are part of a federal lawsuit filed by Earthjustice related to weak emission standards.
Industry groups like the American Chemistry Council and Ethylene Oxide Sterilization Association have long said the risk has been significantly overestimated by the EPA. Those groups have accused the EPA of relying on flawed science and causing undue concern. Those groups have previously declined to be interviewed by Spotlight on America.
Sharon Lavigne says if Formosa's plant is constructed, it would be the third-largest emitter of EtO in the country. When she learned about the dangers of ethylene oxide, she founded RISE St. James to inform her community. "We are poor and black in this neighborhood. They figure no one is going to care, no one is going to look into it," Lavigne told us. But hers isn't the only community facing the potential danger. According to federal data referenced in a June 2019 letter from three U.S. Senators to the Acting Inspector General of the EPA:
There's a stark contrast in other communities though. In more affluent, predominately white communities, residents have mounted public fights when it comes to ethylene oxide emissions, garnering a lot of media attention. In the predominantly white Chicago suburb of Willowbrook, Illinois, a Spotlight on America investigation detailed how public outcry and protest resulted in a known EtO emitter shuttering its facility. In the Atlanta area, hundreds of lawsuits have stacked up against a company that uses ethylene oxide following widespread public scrutiny and media coverage.
But in more rural, lower-income areas like St. James Parish, Louisiana, the voices haven't been as loud. Part of the problem, according to Genna Reed with the Union of Concerned Scientists, is that the EPA hasn't acknowledged the issue in places that may need it most. "It's very important that the agency steps in and helps out all communities equally, not just the ones that are in predominantly white neighborhoods that have the resources and capacity to be very loud and vocal about that," Reed told us.
"What's really terrible is the communities often nearby these facilities are communities of color, low-income communities, communities that are already feeling and experiencing the burden of chemical exposure of clusters, not just one or two manufacturing facilities but several different ones," said Genna Reed with the Union of Concerned Scientists of the areas impacted by EtO emissions.
But as Spotlight on America revealed last year, the EPA still hasn't publicly informed some areas about the cancer risks they face from EtO, even in hard hit Louisiana. Wilma Subra with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network says no representatives from the agency have visited the state to discuss ethylene oxide with the people who live there. "I understand they don't want to come down and walk into a buzzsaw, but yet the community has a right to understand what's being released, why it's being released, how much is being released, and how big an area," Subra told us.
The EPA disputes claims that it has failed to warn, writing in a letter last year that "more work is necessary to fully understand the risk" and "this follow-up work may be conducted prior to significant outreach." The EPA says that work is ongoing.
"You’ll never know all of it, but you need to give it to them and as new information comes out, you need to come back and keep them up on the new information," says Wilma Subra of Louisiana Environmental Action Network about the EPA's failure to warn some communities impacted by EtO. "You never know all the answers but that doesn't give you the right not to tell the communities what you know and what you don't know."
Because Subra believes there's no time to waste, she's taken matters into her own hands, traveling across Louisiana and Texas to warn communities about the dangers of EtO, also calling for lower emissions and regulations to protect minority and low-income communities. She's well versed on the issue after holding positions at the local, state and national level including seven years as vice-chair of the EPA's National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology and six years on the agency's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
Subra says the problem is further compounded because many residents of these communities don't have the financial resources to just walk away, or find a new home. "The issue here is they have to stay here and suffer," Subra told Spotlight on America. "The best we can do is try to reduce the emissions so they are not as much at risk, but even if you reduce the emissions by a tremendous amount, they're still at risk."
The need to publicize the risk and get action is what brought Sharon Lavigne to Capitol Hill in 2019. She testified in front of Congress, asking for lawmakers to help protect vulnerable people from chemical companies that would emit dangerous gases. That same year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers formed a task force to address the dangers of ethylene oxide.
It appears Lavigne's efforts are paying off, with the construction of the Formosa Project placed on hold last year. She says she hopes it never gets built. "This is my community. This is where I was raised and born. And I want to stay here," she said. "I know the people that live here want to stay here too. So yes, I'm going to fight, fight until the end."
Formosa Plastics Group sent Spotlight on America the following statement regarding 'The Sunshine Project,' proposed in St. James Parish:
Thank you for contacting The Sunshine Project, FG LA LLC’s proposed ethylene complex in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Obviously, the facility is not yet constructed. FG’s permit will allow Ethylene Oxide emissions, and modeling for these emissions indicates FG’s emissions will be less than the allowable regulatory levels established by the federal and state governments to protect human health and the environment. Further, FG performed dispersion modeling and the results show it would meet the lower health risk factor suggested by the National Air Toxics Assessment report.