The EPA Faces Questions About Its Approval of a Plastic-Based Fuel With an Astronomical Cancer Risk – Sharon Lerner 4/11/23


A senator questioned the EPA chief and a group sued the agency after ProPublica and the Guardian revealed that the EPA gave a Chevron refinery approval to make a fuel that could leave people nearby with a 1-in-4 lifetime risk of cancer.

The Environmental Protection Agency is facing a lawsuit filed by a community group and questions from a U.S. senator over the agency’s approval of fuels made from discarded plastic under a program it touted as “climate-friendly.”

The new scrutiny is in response to an earlier investigation by ProPublica and the Guardian that revealed the EPA approved the new chemicals even though its own scientists calculated that pollution from production of one of the plastic-based fuels was so toxic that 1 in 4 people exposed to it over their lifetime would be expected to develop cancer. That risk is 250,000 times greater than the level usually considered acceptable by the EPA division that approves new chemicals, and it’s higher than the lifetime risk of cancer for current smokers.

On Friday, a community organization sued the EPA in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., over the agency’s decision to allow a Chevron refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi, to produce the fuels derived from plastic waste, including the one that could subject people nearby to a 1-in-4 lifetime cancer risk. Cherokee Concerned Citizens, which represents residents in a housing subdivision close to that refinery, is asking the court to invalidate the EPA’s approval of the new chemicals.

Earlier in the week, the chair of the U.S. Senate subcommittee that oversees chemical safety questioned the head of the EPA over the agency’s approval of those fuels. Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, told EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a letter sent on Wednesday that he found what ProPublica and the Guardian discovered “especially troubling.”

“While it is urgent that our country takes actions to address climate chaos we need to ensure that the steps we take actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions and do not do so by sacrificing historically marginalized communities and those who are already overburdened by toxic pollution,” Merkley wrote.

The plastic-based fuels were given a green light under an EPA program designed to make it easier to create alternatives to fossil fuels. As ProPublica and the Guardian noted in the February story, making fuel from plastic is in some ways worse for the climate than simply creating it directly from coal, oil or gas. That’s because nearly all plastic is derived from fossil fuels, and additional fossil fuels are used to generate the heat that turns discarded plastic into fuels.

Federal law does not allow the EPA to approve new chemicals that have serious health or environmental risks unless the agency finds ways to minimize them. Yet, the agency approved the new plastic-based fuels without requiring lab tests, air monitoring or controls that would reduce the release of cancer-causing pollutants or nearby residents’ exposure to them, ProPublica and the Guardian found….

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