Reforming Chemical Policy Starts at the Fenceline in Environmental Justice Communities
October 6, 2011
This essay is in response to: Explain how environmental justice concerns play out in your community, and how policy change could address exposure disparities.
chemical policy reform for Environmental Justice communities begins with
appropriate and comprehensive air monitoring in communities on the fenceline of
industries. It also must include empowering fenceline communities to be
involved in hands-on monitoring of the air they breathe. Incorporating the
local knowledge of people who are directly affected complements other efforts
underway to reform national chemical policies such as those on consumer
products and new chemicals entering the marketplace.
is this so important? For many Environmental Justice communities, the
biggest threat to their health is their home address. Whether it is a large oil
refinery, chemical plant, pulp and paper mill, landfill, or fabric dye factory,
many forgotten communities are living under a cloud of hazardous air pollution.
For example, Port Arthur, Texas, is one of the nation’s most polluted communities. A cluster of
refineries and petrochemical plants releases 7 million pounds of toxins yearly.
Despite the air not being tested routinely, agencies and polluters reassure communities
“the air is safe.”
These communities suffer high levels of asthma,
respiratory problems, and illnesses related to toxic exposure. No health
studies are done in these communities to determine the effects of pollution,
yet health officials and polluters agree, “industry is not the cause of health
Industry has targeted certain communities to
expand their dirty operations, based on the lack of regulation and political
power. Most often these are people of color and low income communities.
When communities complain that emissions from an
industrial source are causing harm, the immediate response is a denial by the
source and agencies that exposure is occurring. Traditionally, industry and
government control monitoring and play the “data game” to downplay community
concerns. The game is played by monitoring at the wrong locations, at the wrong
times, for the wrong chemicals, with the wrong equipment. The predictable
result is a finding of “no harmful chemicals” that misleads the exposed
glaring problem is the lack of appropriate and comprehensive air monitoring
used by regulators, including the USEPA, to identify toxic hotspots – such as
those identified by the USA Today study, Smokestack Effect – in order to get agencies and companies to reduce emissions that
cross the fenceline and thereby reduce/eliminate exposures.
is an urgent need to empower – not just inform or involve or access information
– impacted communities through hands-on participation to conduct the actual
monitoring, program design and data interpretation to ensure local knowledge is
respected and incorporated.
air monitoring has been a gamechanger in places like Norco, LA, where African
American neighbors of Shell wanted their community relocated away from the
fenceline. Agencies weren’t doing toxics
testing until the community initiated their own monitoring program. Armed with
data to back up their experience of toxic exposure, residents won a fair and
just relocation program.
Lack of appropriate and
comprehensive air monitoring
the board, USEPA and their delegated agencies use and require regulated sources
to use out-dated, limited technologies and methods to monitor air:
- Only 6 criteria
- Limited fixed locations
versus along entire fencelines
- Toxic tests once every
6 or 12 days on a published schedule
- Equipment deployed for
toxic releases is often either the human nose or hand held monitors with
occupational capabilities – that is incapable of detecting offsite health
are way behind not only European colleagues, but also a growing number of
developing nations like South Africa. There a very few examples of these types
of systems in the nation. One exists in Rodeo California at the Conoco-Phillips refinery
where real time monitors along thousands meters of the fenceline – both upwind
and downwind – were required because the community blocked a permit, negotiated
an agreement, and got the county to include the system as a requirement of the
land use permit. The data is reported to a public website in real time –
something we need in all industrial sites in the country, starting with the
Environmental Justice “hot spots.”
What is the solution? We need comprehensive and real time
monitoring around known hotspots, especially schools. We need this monitoring
around homes near industrial/toxic sources and on the fencelines of those
sources, for the specific pollutants known to be released to the air – in
short, hot spot monitoring, not the old style ambient and stone age approaches
that smooth over and average away real problems. Why? So problem toxic sources
can be identified and cleaned up.
Urgent need to empower
impacted communities in hands-on air monitoring
USEPA and their delegated agencies must empower and train
impacted communities to conduct air testing where they live, work, and play in
a hands-on manner.
This would accomplish:
- Building a working relationship with communities
- Respecting and incorporating local knowledge and experience in the
design, monitoring, and interpretation of air tests
- Creating a cost-effective way to carry out such a program by involving
people who are already working on their air issues locally
neighbors of the Marathon refinery used a community based air sampling method
known as the Bucket Brigade to identify high levels of benzene flowing through the
sewers and burping up inside their homes.
Incidentally, they found that Marathon might be the only oil refinery in
the nation that is allowed to dump in the sewer system. This shows the value of
empowering people to be part of an agency monitoring program.
reform should include all possible opportunities through state and federal
regulations, permits, Title V, enforcement, and settlements – everything – to
move USEPA and their delegated agencies into the new decade when it comes to
monitoring and cleaning up our air, especially in over-burdened Environmental
chemical policy reform must attack the problem with a life cycle approach that
focuses on production and use of toxic chemicals in consumer products. We need
to bring the fenceline Environmental Justice communities to the forefront of
the whole debate on chemical policy reform.