CHARLESTON, WV – The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) is committed to monitoring Ethylene Oxide (EtO) emissions in the Kanawha Valley.
Currently, the facilities that emit EtO at sites in the Kanawha Valley are in compliance with the terms of their permits.
The WVDEP is aware of recent investigative reports by media outlets concerning EtO emissions in the Kanawha Valley. The most recent report incorrectly asserted that the WVDEP has failed to take any action on EtO emissions and delayed attempts to inform the public of the new concerns with EtO.
The WVDEP is deeply offended by these unfounded allegations. The WVDEP's mission is to protect the resources and citizens of West Virginia by promoting a healthy environment. A mission and responsibility the agency takes very seriously. WVDEP staff strive to stay actively engaged with community and environmental stakeholders, industry representatives, our federal partners, and others on a multitude of issues to help address concerns, maintain transparency, and provide exemplary public service to the citizens of West Virginia.
It should be noted that the WVDEP, on multiple occasions, offered to answer all questions the report’s author had on this issue via email. Unfortunately, they felt it more important to focus on getting WVDEP staff on-camera rather than use and report the information that was consistently provided to them.
In light of this, the WVDEP would like to provide the following proper context, clarifications and corrections in response to this report:
Agency actions and outreach
In 2018, the U.S. EPA released its most recent National Air Toxic Assessment (NATA)
, which is EPA’s ongoing review of air toxics in the country. It is a screening level tool to help identify which pollutants, emission sources, and/or localized areas should be studied further to better understand possible public health risks. The 2018 assessment was based on 2014 emissions data and used the updated risk factor associated with EtO (developed by EPA in 2016).
After reviewing the assessment, the WVDEP immediately began work to better understand the extent of the issue and identify possible solutions. This included gathering updated emissions and meteorological data and performing site-specific air modeling and asking the state Department of Health and Human Resources to conduct an initial assessment of the cancer registry for the areas of concern in Institute and South Charleston. DHHR has not identified elevated levels of the cancers associated with EtO in these areas.
Agency records indicate that this 2019 press release was sent via email to members of the media outlet who published the above referenced report, four email accounts associated with this media outlet opened and viewed the email, including the main newsroom email account – which opened the release over 30 times. The WVDEP is not aware of any media reports stemming from this press release by this media outlet, nor did any members of this media outlet reach out for a comment or ask any questions. This, however, did not stop the outlet from publishing a story built on the inaccurate premise that the WVDEP intentionally withheld information about EtO from the public. In reality, the 2019 release proves that the WVDEP has prioritized public transparency on this subject since the beginning, and its omission from the story is proof of the sloppy research and misleading journalism conducted by this reporter and published by this outlet.
The WVDEP continued gathering updated, site-specific information for the South Charleston and Institute areas through 2020. In 2021, the agency created and announced
a webpage designed to inform citizens about EtO and provide updates, reached out to community and religious leaders, environmental groups, and state and local elected officials, and held a virtual public meeting with the EPA.
Since the 2021 public meeting, the WVDEP has continued participating in Institute and South Charleston Community Advisory Panels (monthly meetings between industry representatives and citizens designed to increase communication and transparency), provided updates on EtO in quarterly town hall meetings between citizens and the WVDEP's Environmental Advocate and created a mailing list that citizens can register for to receive updates on EtO.
The WVDEP initiated fenceline monitoring of EtO sites in January 2022.
Further contributing to the above referenced news report’s contradictory and misleading nature, after claiming that no action has been taken by the WVDEP, the story included clips – buried at the end of the piece – showing that the WVDEP is actively sampling and monitoring EtO emissions.
The WVDEP has shared its monitoring plan and other resources with the parties listed above. These resources were also added to the WVDEP's website.
Another in-person public meeting is tentatively scheduled for Spring 2022.
WVDEP's role and authority: Currently, emission limits for EtO are set by the U.S. EPA and apply to all such sources across the country. As it relates to air regulations, like many states, West Virginia is a no-more-stringent-than state (W.Va. Code §22-5-4(a)(4)). This means that the WVDEP cannot have more stringent rules than the EPA unless a finding is made and the rules that govern EtO emissions must be changed at the federal level. The WVDEP's Division of Air Quality is responsible for permitting sites that meet all applicable state rules and federal regulations and ensuring those sites maintain compliance.
The facilities that emit EtO at the Institute and South Charleston UCC sites are in compliance with the terms of their permits.
Industry reporting: Because the previous risk factor associated with EtO was historically lower, many facilities often overestimated their EtO emissions as a matter of convenience.
Cancer risk: The EPA’s recent NATA identified four census tracts in Kanawha County that had updated cancer risks primarily driven by EtO emissions.The updated cancer risks for these tracts ranged from 151 in 1 million (or 1.51 in 10,000) to 325 in 1 million (3.25 in 10,000) – over 70 years. The risk would be in addition to a person's normal cancer risk.
According to recent data from the National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program, U.S. citizens have a 40 percent chance of developing some form of cancer in their lifetime. The new cancer risk associated with EtO increases that chance by 0.0325 percent.
It should also be noted that this new risk factor is a very conservative estimate and based on an individual staying in the same spot and breathing in high levels of EtO 24 hours a day for 70 years. Citizens routinely travel outside the affected areas for work, school, and other activities, and spend a significant amount of time indoors due to weather conditions. Additionally, the South Charleston and Institute facilities do not emit EtO continuously at the same rate.
Population: The media report indicated that 12,000 people live within the area the EPA declared a hotspot.
The WVDEP is not aware of the EPA declaring any of the areas within Kanawha County as a hotspot. The EPA’s NATA identified these areas as potentially having an increased cancer risk due to EtO emissions. Based on the most updated WVDEP modeling of the affected areas by EtO emissions and 2020 census data, approximately 4,440 citizens live in areas identified by the WVDEP as having a cancer risk greater than 100 in 1 million.
Overview of EtO
EtO is classified as a Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP) (also referred to as an air toxic) and emissions can occur from a single point, such as a stack (ex: gasses and solids that come out of a smokestack after the incineration process) or fugitive emissions (leaks from connected components, such as gaskets, piping, etc.).
All Hazardous Air Pollutants are known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects. The U.S. EPA has developed risk factors, which quantify the increased risk of developing cancer or serious health effects. Historically, EtO's toxicity value was lower, and it was classified as a "probable human carcinogen."
In 2014, EPA began its latest study of air toxic emissions across the US. This data is compiled into a report called the National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA). The NATA is used as a screening tool to help identify areas of concern across the country that require additional studies to better understand potential public health risks due to air toxic emissions.
In 2016, EPA updated the toxicity value for EtO based on new evidence and reclassified it as "carcinogenic to humans."
As a result of updating the toxicity value, the most recent NATA (started in 2014 and released in 2018) showed long-term exposure risks to EtO are greater than previously thought.
The 2014 NATA identified 109 census tracts in the U.S. with a total estimated cancer risk greater than 100 in 1 million. This means there’s a likelihood that 100 in 1 million people (or 1 in 10,000 people) would develop cancer if they breathed air containing the same amount of the same air pollutant 24 hours a day for 70 years.
Two areas of concern were identified in West Virginia - the areas around the Institute and South Charleston EtO facilities in Kanawha County.
The WVDEP remains deeply committed to its mission of protecting the resources and citizens of West Virginia by promoting a healthy environment. This mission includes monitoring Ethylene Oxide emissions in the Kanawha Valley.
The WVDEP also remains committed to transparency with this process. As such, the WVDEP will continue to update the public by press releases, through the EtO webpage, and through public meetings.
The recent investigative report referenced above sacrificed journalistic integrity and accuracy in the interest of manufacturing the highest possible shock value in an effort to boost ratings during the February sweeps period. The WVDEP encourages media outlets who choose to report on EtO emissions to do so responsibly.