A community group in Mississippi and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., are pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency for allowing a Chevron Corp. refinery to turn waste plastics into fuel, a decision they say puts the health of nearby residents at risk.
The group, Cherokee Concerned Citizens, filed suit against EPA in federal court April 6, saying that the agency's decision to allow Chevron's Pascagoula, Miss., refinery to turn waste plastics into fuel creates cancer risks much higher than EPA allows.
Chevron disputed that health risk assessment and said it ran only a short trial at the facility using oil from pyrolysis to turn waste plastics into a feedstock for the refinery.
The lawsuit came after Merkley, one of the authors of the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, sent a letter April 5 to EPA Administrator Michael Regan questioning EPA's approval of the Chevron operation under a new program to streamline acceptance of bio-based or waste-derived fuels.
Merkley, who also heads the Senate subcommittee on chemical safety, cited reporting about the program by ProPublica and The Guardian and said he was concerned fenceline communities would be harmed by emissions from turning plastics into fuel.
"I find reports that under the EPA's program companies can and have received approval to create fuel from plastic waste especially troubling," Merkley said. "So-called chemical recycling has been touted by companies like Chevron as a way to reduce plastic waste through repurposing it, but turning plastic waste into fuel increases greenhouse gas emissions, subsidizes the petrochemical industry, and harms frontline communities located near these facilities."
He asked EPA for information on other approvals it has given for chemical waste to be used to make fuels under the program that Chevron used.
The letter and lawsuit came in the same week that EPA proposed a major update of emissions rules for plastics and chemical plants that included, for the first time, monitoring of fenceline emissions of several chemical building blocks used to make plastics.
EPA officials said at the time the update is aimed at better protecting the health of those living near chemical plants.
EPA declined to comment on the Chevron situation, citing pending litigation, but ProPublica previously reported that EPA said its cancer risks estimates were conservative and had a high degree of uncertainty. The agency also told the news outlet that it looked forward to clarifying the record on its approach to reviewing chemicals.
The lawsuit from the Mississippi community organization, which was filed with the environmental group EarthJustice, challenges EPA's use of a new program under the Toxic Substances Control Act to approve Chevron's process.
The suit says EPA calculated that air emissions from production of the new chemicals at Chevron would be 250,000 times greater than what EPA typically considers OK, and would pose up to a one in four cancer risk, "meaning 25 percent of residents living nearby could develop cancer over their lifetime."
But Chevron, in a website created to address community questions, disputed those risk characterizations, and said it only ran a short pyrolysis trial for waste plastics at the refinery.
"The EPA's initial screening is very conservative and doesn't represent actual risk to our community or employees as if it were actually run in the refinery," Chevron said. "We will not process pyoil if it does not meet regulatory emissions requirements. We will not do anything that is unsafe for our workers or our neighboring communities. We will ensure it can be done safely or not at all."
Chevron said it hasn't fed any pyrolysis oil into its operations since the trial and said emissions during that test were normal.
"The EPA approved our using pyrolysis oil, or pyoil, as a feedstock under specified conditions as part of an advanced sustainable recycling program," it said. "We safely completed a short trial period about a year ago and fed minor amounts of pyoil, but have not fed any since."
But a co-founder of Cherokee Concerned Citizens, in a statement from EarthJustice, said EPA should not have approved Chevron's plans and pointed to risks from other nearby industrial plants.
"It's always been profit over the people, but it must end now," said Barbara Weckesser. "The residents in our community are already at a higher risk of developing health problems because of all the industry polluting our neighborhood. The EPA's approval of Chevron's ask is forcing us to fight, leave, or stay here and die."