A New Baseline for “Fenceline” Community Health and Chemical Industry Accountability

Monday, April 29, 2024
Mathy Stanislaus

Vice Provost, Executive Director, The Environmental Collaboratory, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA

Communities living near chemical plants—on the “fenceline” in policy parlance—cannot continue to be exposed to cancer causing toxic emissions. The Biden Administration has made this clear through its recent actions for environmental justice and public safety, but specifically through a recent rule that targets roughly 200 chemical plants that emit exposure to chemicals that can increase the risk of certain types of cancer, including lymphoma, leukemia, breast, and liver cancers. 

The new chemical plant emissions rule will reduce more than 6,200 tons of toxic air pollution each year, and it will reduce potent ethylene oxide and chloroprene emissions by nearly 80%. Coupled with the Risk Management Planning Rule (RMP)—a broader rule to address the release of toxic chemicals from approximately 12,000 facilities—my hope is to see a reduction in the frequency of chemical accidents, which now occur at an alarming average of one incident every three days. 

Bird in fence

I laud the gumption to address the long-standing behavior of a large segment of the chemical industry and the political enablers that have allowed the consequences of emissions on the health of communities to go on relatively ignored. However, far more is needed to address the historic injustice that these communities have faced. Roughly 131 million people live within three miles of RMP facilities, of which approximately 20 million identify as Black or African American, 32 million identify as Hispanic or Latino, and 44 million earn less than or equal to twice the poverty level. Communities within one to three miles of regulated facilities—the population most impacted by accidents—have higher percentages of people belonging to historically vulnerable income, race, and ethnic groups compared to the national average. 

Having chaired the Obama Administration’s Interagency Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group, I traveled the country to meet with community residents, workers, and emergency responders that were impaired by the ongoing releases toxic chemicals. In 2013, a tragic fire and explosion that killed 15 people at a fertilizer plant in West Texas drew the nation’s attention to the need to protect fenceline communities. But just six years later, when tighter protections were slated to go into effect, the Trump Administration rolled back these protections, resulting in ongoing disasters that disproportionately affect marginalized communities. 

The most significant benefit of the new chemical plant emissions rule will be reduced death and injury and the long-term health risks from accidental exposure to toxic chemicals. These lingering health risks occur from toxic chemical releases into the air, surface water, or soil, as well from stress and uncertainty associated with perceived risk of long-term lingering health problems due to chemical accidents. Sadly, it is no accident that the 85-mile corridor of chemical plants located between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is commonly referred to as “Cancer Alley.” 

Furthermore, the rule's emphasis on climate resilience is crucial, given the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters. One-third of regulated chemical facilities in the United States are in areas prone to hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. Without adequate safeguards, these facilities are vulnerable to catastrophic failures that endanger lives and the environment. By addressing climate vulnerabilities and promoting safer practices, the new rule not only protects communities but also saves lives and prevents economic losses. 

Consider the staggering figures: according to data submitted by the chemical industry over a five-year period, chemical accidents resulted in $178 million in residential property damage and $2.3 billion in losses for the chemical industry. These accidents resulted in 18 employee deaths, 575 employee injuries, 6 deaths of public responders, and 5 injured responders. The impacts to residents include 134 people seeking medical treatment, 64,739 evacuations, and 84,808 people sheltering in place to limit exposure to toxic chemicals. 

The chemical industry must prioritize the well-being of workers, communities, and the environment over short-term profits. Responsible operators already adhering to safety protocols—developed by industry professionals—should be recognized and incentivized. Leaders of the chemical industry and states that host them must be called to action and change their behavior so that toxic exposures to vulnerable populations are no longer normalized or accepted as the cost of doing business. 

The Biden Administration has taken major steps to address the most burdened communities in the United States. Yet, the new chemical plant emissions rule is not enough. For example, carbon capture and storage projects should not be co-located with petro-chemical plants in vulnerable communities, as it would be exacerbate the historic injustice to burden these communities with additional toxic pollution to advance climate solutions. We also need to invest in medical monitoring and intervention. The relocation of communities that cannot safely co-exist with chemical plant complexes should also be addressed. Much has been gained, but there is still much work to be done. 

Mathy Vathanaraj Stanislaus is Vice Provost, Executive Director of the Environmental Collaboratory at Drexel University, and a former senior Obama Administration official, who served as U.S. Senate-confirmed Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator from 2009-2017.