WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Thursday proposed a new regulation to significantly reduce hazardous air pollutants from chemical plants, including the carcinogens ethylene oxide, an ingredient in antifreeze, and chloroprene, which is used to make the rubber in footwear.
The proposed rule would affect the vast majority of chemical manufacturers, applying to more than 200 facilities spread across Texas and Louisiana and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast as well as the Ohio River Valley and in West Virginia. It would update several regulations governing emissions from chemical plants, some of which have not been tightened in nearly 20 years.
The action is part of the Biden administration’s effort to address the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards facing communities that surround chemical plants. Known as fenceline communities, they are generally low-income, minority neighborhoods with elevated rates of asthma, cancer and other health problems.
Michael S. Regan, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced the proposal at an event in St. John the Baptist Parish, La., one of several fenceline communities that he visited during a 2021 tour he called “Journey to Justice.”
In February, the E.P.A. and the Justice Department sued a chemical manufacturer in St. John the Baptist Parish, Denka Performance Elastomer, arguing that it had been releasing unsafe concentrations of carcinogenic chloroprene near homes and schools. Federal regulators had determined in 2016 that chloroprene emissions from the Denka plant were contributing to the highest cancer risk of any place in the United States.
“For generations, our most vulnerable communities have unjustly borne the burden of breathing unsafe, polluted air,” said Mr. Regan. “When I visited St. John the Baptist Parish during my first Journey to Justice tour, I pledged to prioritize and protect the health and safety of this community and so many others that live in the shadows of chemical plants. I’m proud that this proposal would help deliver on that commitment.”
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The regulation would mark the first time that the E.P.A. considered the cumulative impacts of more than one plant on a community, rather than simply the effect of a single source of pollution.
Judith Enck, a former E.P.A. regional administrator, said the proposed rule is an effort to correct a federal regulatory system that for decades only sought to address the impacts of one chemical in isolation.
“That’s not how it works in the real world,” said Ms. Enck, who is now president of Beyond Plastics, an environmental group. “When you live next to an industrial facility you’re not just exposed to mercury, you’re not just exposed to heavy metals. It’s a witches brew.” She called the proposed rule “extremely important.”
The rule would require large chemical plants that manufacture chemicals like ethylene oxide, chloroprene and benzene, used in products like plastics, vinyl flooring and PVC piping, to rigorously tighten controls and processes in their facilities in order to limit emissions of the chemicals into the surrounding communities.
Manufacturers would need to aggressively monitor vents and storage tanksfor chemicals escaping into the air, and plug the leaks.
They would also need to continually check not just smokestacks and vents at the manufacturing facilities, but also whether the chemicals of concern are present at the property line of a plant. That kind of fenceline monitoring is similar to those required of petroleum refineries.
Environmental advocates called the proposed rule significant.
“Today’s proposed air toxics standards mark a critical first step in protecting communities from our nation’s largest and most hazardous chemical plants,” said Adam Kron, an attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental group.
The agency will accept public comments on the proposal for 60 days before finalizing it, likely next year.