EPA Announces Stricter Pollution Enforcement

Sabrina Halvorson Environment, Industry

EPA Administrator Michael Regan
EPA Administrator Michael Regan

The Environmental Protection Agency is taking what it calls “bold actions” to reduce pollution. Among the agency-wide actions, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said he is “committing EPA to aggressively use its authority to conduct unannounced inspections of suspected non-compliant facilities, as needed to protect public health. When facilities are found to be non-compliant, EPA will use all available tools to hold them accountable.”

Listen to the announcement Regan made on a call with reporters.

The following is an unedited news release from the Environmental Protection Agency.

WASHINGTON (Jan. 26, 2022) – Following through on his commitment to action during his Journey to Justice Tour, US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan announced today the first in a series of actions responding directly to concerns of communities historically and disproportionately impacted by pollution. The actions, which range from policy changes to community-driven efforts, reflect Administrator Regan’s commitment to deliver environmental justice and work towards building a better America, and are part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s whole-of-government approach to addressing these issues in communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.

“In every community I visited during the Journey to Justice tour, the message was clear – residents have suffered far too long and local, state, and federal agencies have to do better,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “The pollution concerns have been impacting these communities for decades. Our actions will begin to help not only the communities I visited on this tour, but also others across the country who have suffered from environmental injustices.”

In response to concerns from residents in overburdened neighborhoods, EPA is announcing specific actions in each of the areas that he visited on the tour. In addition, EPA is outlining a series of broad policy actions including:

Committing EPA to aggressively use its authority to conduct unannounced inspections of suspected non-compliant facilities, as needed to protect public health. When facilities are found to be non-compliant, EPA will use all available tools to hold them accountable.

Deploying a new program to expand air monitoring capacity, utilizing assets such as the ASPECT airplane, GMAP mobile air monitoring vehicle, and additional air pollution inspectors to enhance enforcement.

Mobilizing agency resources to invest in community air monitoring to better protect people and public health in vulnerable areas.

Pressing state and local elected officials to take urgent action to better protect the most overburdened communities.

Holding companies more accountable for their actions in overburdened communities with increased monitoring and oversight of polluting facilities.

Applying best available science to agency policymaking to safeguard public health and protect the environment.

In addition to these policy changes, the Administrator has directed his team to work on several steps to address specific community concerns.

Agency-wide actions

To ensure facility compliance with environmental laws, the Administrator directed the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) to aggressively use its authority to conduct unannounced inspections at suspected non-compliant facilities, as needed, to protect public health.

EPA is announcing today a new Multi-Scale Monitoring Project called the Pollution Accountability Team (PAT) to provide strong environmental compliance and monitoring in the south, launching in Spring 2022. This program combines high-tech air pollution monitoring with boots-on-the-ground inspectors to address pollution and enhance enforcement at a community scale. EPA’s ASPECT airplane will monitor facilities from the sky while mobile vehicles like EPA’s GMAP will monitor pollution from the ground. At the same time, a team of inspectors from across EPA regions will follow up to investigate any emission detection findings at specific sites. The PAT pilot program will also work to develop and/or acquire new instrumentation to measure newly emerging contaminants, such as chloroprene and ethylene oxide.  More details on this program will be available in the coming weeks, including a schedule for meetings with communities.

As previously announced, the Agency is also directing resources to better protect people and public health in overburdened areas across the nation, making $20 million in grants available from the American Rescue Plan to enhance local air monitoring for pollutants of greatest concern in communities facing health disparities. The largest investment in community-based monitoring systems in EPA history will provide transparency and accountability, and foster pollution strategies in underserved communities.  EPA encourages community-based nonprofit organizations, Tribes, states, and local governments to apply for the grants before the March 25 deadline. More information: https://www.epa.gov/arp/enhanced-air-quality-monitoring-funding-under-arp.

The Agency is also taking steps to apply the best available science to solutions for communities facing severe pollution. Last week, the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP) released for peer review a proposed screening methodology to evaluate chemical risk to fenceline communities. Today, the Administrator signed a notice proposing to reaffirm EPA’s peer-reviewed scientific assessment showing that ethylene oxide is significantly more toxic than previously understood, and to find that it is appropriate to rely upon this assessment in taking regulatory actions to reduce this harmful pollutant. This notice responds to several petitions for reconsideration of a 2020 rule revising emission standards for chemical plants in the Miscellaneous Organic Chemical Manufacturing source category and will be open to public comment for 30 days. The rigorous evaluation of scientific studies that EPA is reaffirming in today’s notice will ensure the agency is guided by the best information as EPA works to address health risks posed by ethylene oxide.

Taking action in Mississippi

In Jackson, Administrator Regan saw firsthand the longstanding water infrastructure challenges and the impacts these problems have on the community including children at Wilkins Elementary School, where the Administrator was to visit students and faculty until school was canceled due to low water pressure.

And once again this week, the winter weather has caused yet another boil water notice in Jackson, which has faced too many significant water challenges for too long. On January 25, 2022, EPA issued a Notice of Noncompliance to the city for not timely repairing and maintaining equipment necessary to reliably produce drinking water.

Later this week, Administrator Regan will be sending follow-up letters to elected officials to stress the importance of dedicating federal infrastructure funds, including nearly $79 million allocated to Mississippi from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to solve some of most dire water needs in Jackson and other areas of need across Mississippi.

“Administrator Regan’s leadership on addressing environmental Justice issues that have plagued communities in the deep south for far too long gives us hope that change will come,” said NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson. “During his visit to Jackson he was able to see firsthand the water infrastructure challenges we’re experiencing in the city, and today he’s following through on his commitment to fight for vulnerable communities to receive the funding they need from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.”

“I look forward to EPA keeping its promise of equity and equality when serving minority communities.” said Congressman Bennie Thompson

Taking action in Louisiana

Administrator Regan later traveled to Louisiana, meeting residents in New Orleans, St. John the Baptist Parish, St. James Parish, and Mossville, where he saw the impacts of pollution, climate change and crumbling water infrastructure.

The new Pollution Accountability Team will start as the pilot air monitoring project in Mossville, St. James Parish and St. John the Baptist Parish. EPA will work with residents and community leaders to determine the routes to be traveled by the mobile monitoring vehicle and the contaminants to be monitored.  As part of the Administration’s commitment to transparency, EPA Region 6 will make this data available to the public.

EPA will also invest more than $600,000 to procure mobile air pollution monitoring equipment and will be deploying the monitors specifically in Mossville, St. John the Baptist Parish and St. James Parish, among other communities located in the south. This equipment will measure volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including air toxics, and will dramatically improve EPA’s ability to measure pollution quickly and assess situations in real-time. EPA will work with local organizations to host trainings for community members to familiarize them with the technology and the process the Agency uses for its air monitoring. 

In St. John the Baptist Parish, EPA used its authority to require the Denka facility to install fenceline monitors to identify sources of emissions onsite, allowing the EPA and communities to better understand air pollutants in a quick, reliable way.  This month, Denka complied with EPA’s request to install these monitors.

In addition, Administrator Regan sent a letter to Denka and DuPont CEOs pressing the companies to protect residents of St. John the Baptist Parish, including children that learn and play along their fenceline, after periodic elevated concentrations of chloroprene were measured nearby. In the letter, Administrator Regan wrote: “…as a parent, I remain extremely concerned about the over 500 children at the elementary school. I am writing to you today to reiterate what I hope are our shared concerns and expectations over the health and well-being of the students. EPA expects DuPont and Denka to take other needed action to address community concerns.” Further, EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance will work with the Department of Justice to redouble their efforts in seeking additional, and timely, avenues of relief for this community.

In St. James Parish, Administrator Regan heard concerns about the impacts of the proposed Formosa Plastics facility. In response to resident requests, EPA announced support for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to require a more robust Environmental Impact Statement as a permit for a proposed Formosa plant expansion is considered. This will ensure a stronger understanding of impacts this plant may have on communities. Considerations will include evaluating reasonable alternatives to the proposed action, the potential cumulative effects, and a public comment period – none of which were previously required by the environmental assessment. EPA has offered to provide technical assistance to the Army Corps in the development of the Impact Statement.

This week, EPA Region 6 also issued a Notice of Violation and Opportunity to Confer (NOVOC) to Nucor Steel Louisiana LLC in St. James Parish. The EPA notice requires Nucor to address unauthorized emissions of hydrogen sulfide and sulfuric acid mist, and exceedance of permitted limits for sulfur dioxide emissions at Nucor’s Direct Reduced Iron (DRI) facility.

In Mossville, LA, Administrator Regan joined residents to discuss their concerns around air and water quality. In response, today EPA announced a significant increase in inspections of industrial facilities in the Mossville area. EPA will assess compliance at facilities that present potentially elevated risks to the community based on recent EPA helicopter flyovers and mobile air monitoring of the area. EPA also provided $38,886 for LDEQ to purchase a NAAQS quality PM 2.5 continuous monitor to be placed across the road from Sasol’s Lake Charles Complex.

EPA will monitor and review the data and conduct an independent assessment to determine if NAAQS standards are exceeded in the Lake Charles area. The EPA will also conduct Technical System Audits on a rotating basis of the State’s monitoring system operations as well as reviewing LDEQ’s annual data certifications and LDEQ’s annual monitoring network plan.

EPA Region 6 also issued this week a Notice of Potential Violation and Opportunity to Confer (NOPVOC) Letter to Sasol Chemicals USA, LLC. The Sasol facility uses natural gas and by-products from refinery operations to produce specialty chemicals for detergents and cosmetics. The chemical complex uses or produces several regulated flammables such as ethylene, propane, butane, propylene, ethane, butane, hydrogen, methane and pentane. The EPA notice follows a January 2021 Compliance Evaluation conducted by inspectors from EPA Region 6 and LDEQ, and requires Sasol to address potential Risk Management Plan violations found during the inspection.

In New Orleans’ Gordon Plaza neighborhood, Administrator Regan heard from residents about the impacts of living in the affordable housing development built on the former site of the Agriculture Street Landfill. As part of addressing those concerns, EPA will now expedite a review of the site which was previously slated for review in 2023; the accelerated review will begin in March 2022 and will include 9 homes that were not included in the previous review process. The Agency is taking this step to re-evaluate its previous decision that the land is safe and to communicate the results to the community. In addition, on January 6, 2022, Administrator Regan met with Mayor Cantrell and Dr. Beverly Wright of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ) to discuss a shared commitment between EPA and the City of New Orleans to work together on community-based solutions for the residents of Gordon Plaza. The solutions discussed would support relocation of community members off the land, provide economic opportunity for the City, advance clean energy, and lower greenhouse gas emissions in the area. Most importantly, they would ensure the health and safety of Gordon Plaza residents is protected. Administrator Regan and Dr. Wright committed to continue working closely with Mayor Cantrell and her team to advance these shared goals.

“I would like to thank the Administrator for assisting the City of New Orleans with their infrastructure issues, as well as initiating first steps toward accountability, especially regarding air quality enforcement, monitoring, and data collection, which I called for back in August,” said Congressman Troy A. Carter, Sr. “The environmental justice actions announced today will allow collection of independent, reliable data that will inform the path forward to better the public health of our community.”

Taking Action in Texas

Following stops in Houston, including the Fifth Ward, Kashmere Gardens and the Houston Ship Channel, where Administrator Regan spoke with residents about impacts of air and water pollution from nearby facilities on the community, EPA announced the following actions.

Throughout stops in Texas and Louisiana, communities voiced concerns over the health risks that ethylene oxide (EtO) poses to their residents and called for swift action to reduce emissions of this dangerous chemical to outdoor air. As part of the proposal announced today to reaffirm EPA’s peer-reviewed scientific assessment showing that EtO is significantly more toxic than previously understood, EPA is proposing to formally reject the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s less protective risk value for EtO. EPA is committed to leading with the best available science in this and future rulemakings to reduce emissions of this chemical and better protect people’s health. The agency is also looking at a range of approaches besides regulations for achieving emissions reductions while regulations are in development, and ensuring communities are informed and engaged as we work to address EtO.

In the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens area, EPA announced completion of a review of a proposed Union Pacific Railroad permit renewal and corrective actions that govern cleanup of contamination at the Houston Wood Preserving Works site. EPA intends to submit comments to TCEQ laying out concerns and recommendations to ensure that permit terms and corrective action goals address the concerns of community members, who are disproportionately impacted by pollution. EPA is also monitoring TCEQ’s installation and operation of additional air monitors. These air monitors will supplement the existing monitoring network and capture the pollution that residents in these communities face. In addition, on January 20, 2022, Administrator Regan spoke with Mayor Sylvester Turner to discuss the continued commitment between EPA and the City of Houston to work together to ensure the community’s concerns are addressed and the health and safety of residents is protected.

In response to the call for improved accessibility to language and interpretation services, EPA is establishing a partnership with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services ( T.E.J.A.S) under the Beyond Translation (BT) Plus program to improve communication, especially when it comes to information on environmental risk and enforcement. Under the partnership, EPA will develop local strategies to address air toxics in communities, provide better transparency regarding enforcement, and improve access to risk management plans.

“I am pleased to thank EPA Administrator Michael Regan, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Biden Administration for these important steps forward to help the people in my Congressional District, living in Kashmere Gardens, 5th Ward and other Northeast areas of Houston and Harris County that comprise the 18th Congressional District.   This announcement today is going to change lives.  Over the past years I have been holding meetings, and engaging with state and federal officials repeatedly, and meeting cancer victims while listening to the stories of families who lost loved to cancer and other diseases over the generations.  We are desperate for relief.   I have been disappointed by the unwillingness of previous Administrations to act to protect residents. Now that has changed with the Biden Administration,” said Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. “As a member of the House Committees on Homeland Security, I have long worked for every resource possible to solve the problem of creosote contamination in these neighborhoods. Again, this focused relief that is coming under the leadership of the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator is a great relief to my constituents; and is evidence of the importance of the Environmental Justice Tours that the Administrator has taken throughout the nation.  People’s lives will be better, and we are going to save lives because of this.  I will continue to raise these issues and seek major relief, which for these residents may result in a Super Fund cleanup.”

For more information, visit: https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/journey-justice

Sabrina Halvorson
National Correspondent / AgNet Media, Inc.

Sabrina Halvorson is an award-winning journalist, broadcaster, and public speaker who specializes in agriculture. She primarily reports on legislative issues and hosts The AgNet News Hour and The AgNet Weekly podcast. Sabrina is a native of California’s agriculture-rich Central Valley.