Ethylene Oxide: EPA Meeting Update

Last Thursday night, the EPA Region 6 held a Webinar to address public concerns regarding ethylene oxide (EtO), a carcinogenic chemical produced in several facilities across the Houston area.

This webinar was held to discuss the potential cancer risks from EtO emissions from the Shell Technology Center (STC) in West Houston. However, the comments from advocates and community members often highlighted the concerns of communities in East Harris County that are at greater risk of EtO pollution as well as other pernicious air toxic impacts. 

According to EPA’s updated risk assessment of the STC, EtO emissions have been significantly reduced since 2014 and annual cancer risk rates have consequently dropped below EPA’s threshold for further action.

AAH staff, community members, and other advocacy organizations asked several pertinent and critical questions of the EPA representatives, including:

  • regarding the methods used to determine the estimated reduction in emissions 
  • how (or if) the long-term cancer risk rate is impacted by a single year’s emissions reduction
  • what processes were implemented to reduce emissions
  • if fenceline or community air monitoring has been conducted in the areas surrounding the facility
  • and what EPA is doing to address those already impacted by EtO emissions that have developed cancers associated with the chemical

In general, the response of EPA representatives to these and other questions was unsatisfying and many concerns went unanswered. Reported reductions in EtO emissions are self-reported by the facility and are easily manipulable. Actual emissions are highly variable based on production capacity and plant operation decisions. No monitoring has been conducted to determine community concentrations. Actual risks to community residents are difficult to determine and meaningful solutions remain elusive.

At the peak of the meeting, attendance on the webinar surpassed 100 participants. Despite the topic being the STC on the west side of the city, many attendees expressed concerns about the EtO-producing facilities in East Harris County that aren’t currently being looked at by EPA yet pose a much greater risk to nearby residents according to EPA’s own National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) modeling. 

Participants speaking on behalf of the communities of East End included Kristen Lee, a resident of LaPorte and a member of our ‘Air Quality Advocates Committee.’ Lee asserted that La Porte has a higher rate of cancer than the STC surrounding area and she encouraged the EPA to double back and engage with previously marginalized communities that were not addressed in this meeting.

AAH appreciates EPA’s efforts to communicate this information and address the concerns of the affected community to the extent they are able. Though many questions were left unanswered, we left with the expectant impression that EPA would take the questions and concerns of residents into consideration when conducting future community outreach efforts. 

EPA says that at this time, no further action is recommended regarding the STC, but that the agency will continue to work with Shell to review their emissions to ensure no increases recur. EPA expressed an intent to focus their next efforts on facilities that have greater risks, however, no facilities were named at this time. 

Going forward, we will continue to engage with EPA to ensure that the high-risk facilities in East Harris County are addressed in future EtO community outreach and investigations.

The recording and transcript of the meeting have not yet been published. Once available, they will be located HERE.

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