Meaningful 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.
Why 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
A 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
There 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.
Community 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
Across 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 pollutants
Limited fixed locations versus along entire
Toxic tests once every 6 or 12 days on a published
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 impacts
We 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
In Detroit, 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.
Policy 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 Justice areas.
Meaningful 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