The Petrochemical Industry Threatens Public Health Under the Cover of COVID-19

In times of crisis such as the current pandemic, there is a great surge in acts of human kindness. Then there are those who turn a crisis into opportunity – for themselves. Some stockpile hand sanitizers until the price is right. Some televangelists and convicted fraudsters like Jim Bakker sell online products with unfounded claims that they “can kill any of these known viruses.” Some politicians sell stocks after hearing intelligence reports on the growing threat, while telling the public not to worry about that threat. 

 

The fossil fuels and chemical industries have pulled off a much grander heist: a presidential hall pass from hunkering down followed by the end of environmental oversight over their operations, including the release of air and water pollutants. That’s right: the end of environmental oversight so even more toxic pollutants can be released without the government paying attention on behalf of the people. 

Industry associations like the American Chemistry Council and American Petroleum Institute moved swiftly to capitalize on the coronavirus pandemic by claiming their industries, as a whole, to be “essential to public health.” For instance: Ned Monroe, CEO of the Vinyl Institute, wrote last week. “As public officials consider whether it is necessary to shut down non-essential manufacturing, it is imperative that we remind decision makers that PVC [polyvinyl chloride plastic] manufacturing and our supply chain are critical in combating the spread of infection, diseases, and protecting public health.” (1)

 

In response, on March 19, 2020, the president declared a wide range of industries to be “essential to continued critical infrastructure viability.” These include petroleum and natural gas producers, chemical manufacturers, chlor-alkali plants, and manufacturers of single-use plastics.

That was the first of two gut-punches to the our environmental and public health. (2)

 

The other came swiftly last night (March 26, 2020): The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency no longer requires companies in the U.S. to follow most of its laws.

 

An agency memo declares, “EPA does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance.” And further, “EPA does not plan to ask facilities to ‘catch-up,’” on these obligations after the crisis is over. The Trump administration further rewarded industry friends by making these terms retroactive to March 13, 2020.(3)

 

In one memorandum, the agency unharnesses the world’s most polluting industries. It welcomes them to release poisons into the air and water in the midst of the biggest public health crisis since 1918. Many of these now-exempt- from-governance plants are in Covid-19 hotspots, specifically New Orleans, Louisiana, Houston, Texas, and Louisvillle, Kentucky. (4)

 

 

Chemical plants release large volumes of air pollutants like ethylene dichloride and isocyanates. These cause asthma and impair the respiratory systems of plant workers and people living downwind, potentially increasing their vulnerability to the novel coronavirus. Public health scientists have warned, “Potential interactions between exposure to air pollutants and respiratory virus infections have significant public health implications for people throughout the world. More importantly, air pollution-induced enhanced susceptibility to respiratory viral infections could have even more serious implications for individuals with preexisting pulmonary conditions.” (5)

 

“The EPA’s actions are reprehensible,” said Gretchen Goldman, Research Director, Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists. “The agency should be working to address the disproportionate harm faced by communities near polluting facilities, not giving industries a free pass to worsen community impacts. These actions are especially egregious in light of emerging evidence that air pollution exposure may worsen the health impacts of coronavirus. The EPA should be tackling health inequities, not exacerbating them.”  

 

Sheltering-in-place, sadly, is not a new concept to neighbors of chemical plants around the country. (6) Explosions and upset conditions at petrochemical plants are common, and may increase as staff runs short and oversight vanishes. These incidents will further stretch first responder resources, just when they, too, may fall ill. 


Environmental justice experts say that 124 million people across the country, “live within chemical disaster vulnerability zones, and millions more experience heightened risk of health problems because of daily air pollution or whose drinking water could be poisoned by a chemical spill at any time.” People living on the fenceline of these chemical plants, especially those with poor nutrition from lack of access to healthy foods, have elevated rates of respiratory illness. (7)

 

Already, workers in at least four plants in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, area, a global center of the petrochemical industry, have tested positive for exposure to the new coronavirus. These include four contractors at the Dow plant in Plaquemine, as well as workers at the BASF plant in Geismar and Denka’s chemical factory in LaPlace. A contractor at the Monsanto pesticides plant in Luling died of respiratory illness last week after having tested positive for the virus. (8)

 

The presidential guidelines say “essential industries” should be prioritized “related to continuity of operations and incident response.” In other words, the deployment of first responders will be prioritized for these industries, while there is a growing need for these brave people to be elsewhere. Where will people who are “sheltering in place” from the virus go when they have to escape a chemical accident? How much more severe will be COVID-19 for people living next to smokestacks?

 

Some industrial activities truly are essential for the fight against the new coronavirus. This does not mean the petrochemical industry as a whole is essential. It is hard to find the public health benefit in the ongoing production of PVC resins for export by foreign-owned corporations including Formosa Plastics, Westlake, and Shintech, for example. 

 

Thanks to their friends in the Trump administration, the petrochemical industry is continuing its unhealthy business practices, now unfettered by federal environmental oversight as deadly illness sweeps through fenceline communities, affecting plant workers, residents, and first responders.

 

“As of March 26 under the order from the White House the US EPA released an ‘Enforcement Discretion Policy’ in essence throwing public safety and chemical security out the door,” said Jose T. Bravo, Executive Director of the Just Transition Alliance. “Workers at the frontline of chemical manufacturing and communities at the Fenceline of exposure are at dire risk because of this callous move. We are living in a time where this blatant approach to dismantle safety measures is unconscionable and borderline criminal.”

 

Now is the time for the American people and our government at the local, state and federal levels to look up from their self-interests, and listen to those who seek refuge from everyday pollution and have no place to run. 

 

A place to start: pinpoint exactly what parts of the industry – plant-by-plant, unit-by-unit — are truly essential to public health at this time. Verify that what they are producing is used essentially, then work with fenceline communities and workers to ensure that petrochemical plant pollution does not amplify local health crises. 

 

For the rest of the industry, for the time being, please hunker down like the rest of us. I’m sure you will be amply compensated. Take care as you shut down.

 

Notes:

(1) Monroe, Ned. “PVC Is Essential to Public Health.” Vinyl Institute, March 2020. https://www.vinylinfo.org/news/pvc-manufacturing-coronavirus-essential-public-health/. Note: The Vinyl Institute is a trade association that represents four producers of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic resins, three of which are overseas corporations. Most of what this industry produces (such as PVC resins, ethylene dichloride, vinyl chloride monomer) is shipped overseas. Most of the PVC supply chain is designed to sustain the production of stranded fracking gases. A small fraction of this chain can be considered relevant to supplying materials needed to fight coronavirus.

(2) Krebs, Christopher. “Memorandum on Identification of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During Covid-19 Response.” Cybersecurity and Infrastucture Security Agency, March 19, 2020. https://www.cisa.gov/sites/default/files/publications/CISA-Guidance-on-Essential-Critical-Infrastructure-Workers-1-20-508c.pdf.

(3) The only exceptions to this policy: “activities that are carried out under Superfund and RCRA Corrective Action enforcement instruments.” Bodine, Susan Parker. “Memorandum: COVID-19 Implications for EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Program.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, March 26, 2020. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2020-03/documents/oecamemooncovid19implications.pdf.

(4) Center for Systems Science and Engineering, and John Hopkins University & Medicine. “Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases,” https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html.

(5)  Jonathan Ciencewicki & Ilona Jaspers (2007) Air Pollution and Respiratory Viral Infection, Inhalation Toxicology, 19:14, 1135-1146, DOI: 10.1080/08958370701665434.

(6)  See for example, the sources for the screenshots accompanying this article: “Shelter in Place” screenshots from KHOU Staff. “Toxic Chemical Release Forces Pasadena Residents to Shelter-in-Place,” February 17, 2010. https://www.khou.com/article/news/toxic-chemical-release-forces-pasadena-residents-to-shelter-in-place/285-342196626; and, Live 5 Web Staff. “DHEC Investigating after Phosphorous Leak at Charleston Chemical Plant.” KCSC, November 27, 2019. https://www.live5news.com/2019/11/27/residents-upper-king-street-area-asked-shelter-place-crews-battle-leak-fire-chemical-plant/

(7) Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy, Coming Clean, and Campaign for Healthier Solutions. “Life At the Fenceline: Understanding Cumulative Health Hazards in Environmental Justice Communities,” September 2018. https://new.comingcleaninc.org/assets/media/documents/Life%20at%20the%20Fenceline%20-%20English%20-%20Public.pdf.

(8) Gremillion, Nick, Kevin Foster, and Kiram Chawla. “3 More Contractors at Dow Chemical in Plaquemine Test Positive for COVID-19.” WAFB, March 25, 2020. https://www.wafb.com/2020/03/17/dow-contractor-tests-positive-covid-/.  And, Mitchell, David. “Five New Positive Coronavirus Tests for Plant Workers along Mississippi River.” Baton Rouge Advocate, March 24, 2020. https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/coronavirus/article_4696f392-6ded-11ea-9487-f76c4c8c8b8f.html.