A new federal rule announced Tuesday is expected to drastically cut the amount of pollution from chemical plants and refineries in Louisiana, amounting to the most substantial change in years and one designed to reduce the risk of cancer for surrounding communities.

The new Environmental Protection Agency rule, which follows two visits to Louisiana by EPA Administrator Michael Regan, was lauded by activists who have long pushed for major chemical emission reductions in the heavily industrialized area of the state they call "Cancer Alley.” But the petrochemical industry harshly criticized it, with one company pledging legal action and saying it would be forced to idle its operations.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s action is aimed at reducing emissions of chloroprene, ethylene oxide and four other likely cancer-causing air pollutants being released by more than 200 chemical plants nationwide, including 51 plants and refineries in Louisiana.

It specifically targets the controversial Denka Performance Elastomers facility in LaPlace, the biggest source of chloroprene emissions in the U.S. But it also targets 10 plants emitting ethylene oxide and other chemicals in Geismar, five in Baton Rouge and five in the town of Plaquemine.

"When I visited St. John's Parish, and 'Cancer Alley' during the first leg of my journey to justice tour in 2021, I saw firsthand how the multi-generational and widespread effects of pollution were affecting the health of the local community," Regan said. "Nearly every person I spoke to knew someone who suffered from an illness connected to pollution from the air they breathe."

He noted his promise to take action to protect the affected majority-Black neighborhoods of southeast Louisiana, such as those adjacent to the Denka facility.

U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, participated in the briefing with Regan and welcomed the rule.

"By slashing over 6,200 tons of toxic air pollutants annually and implementing fenceline monitoring, this addresses health risks in surrounding communities and promotes environmental justice in states like Louisiana,” said Carter.

Implementation of the new rule would reduce air toxics-related cancer risk by 96%, according to an EPA assessment of exposure from all large facilities within about 6 miles of the plants. The assessment included emissions from facilities not covered by the rule.

State and industry officials argue that the actual number of cancer cases recorded by the Louisiana Tumor Registry and state health department studies is lower than what the EPA future risk studies show.

But an EPA spokesperson said the agency believes its 2010 risk assessment is the proper measure to use in setting the new standards.

The chloroprene assessment "was developed using a robust, transparent, and public process and represents the agency’s top tier source of toxicity information on chloroprene,” said EPA spokesperson Remmington Belford.

Denka to fight new rule

Denka said it will go to court to challenge the new rule, which includes a provision requiring the company to meet the new emission reduction requirements within 90 days after it takes effect.

"EPA’s drastic reduction of the compliance period — from two years to 90 days — is unprecedented and clearly driven by its ill-founded, politicized approach to regulating chloroprene emissions at America’s only neoprene manufacturing facility," the company said in a statement.

"This draconian deadline would in itself force DPE to idle its operations at tremendous expense and risk to its hundreds of dedicated employees.”

The Louisiana Chemical Association, which represents many of the companies the new rule will affect, is considering its next steps to stop enforcement for plants using ethylene oxide, said Greg Bowser, president of the association. He said his staff will meet with member companies to develop a strategy in the near future.

"LCA will be closely reviewing the rule and its potential implications for its member companies in an effort to assess the rule's impact on Louisiana industry and determine appropriate courses of action,” he said. “LCA remains committed to advocating for scientifically sound regulatory measures and that regulatory decisions are based on accurate and reliable data.”

Louisiana Attorney General Liz Murrill also criticized the new rule.

“This regulation is a new assault by the Biden administration and misguided climate activists, funded by interest groups to shut down the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries in Louisiana and this nation," Murrill said. "These efforts are nothing more than political theatre during an election year.”

The new rule sets new standards for the chemical plants to install fenceline monitors to measure pollutants and ends exemptions for emissions that happen during plant startups, shutdowns and accidents.

Fenceline monitoring

The rule will set two fenceline monitoring action levels for chloroprene: 0.8 micrograms per cubic meter, and a more stringent 0.3 micrograms per cubic meter at neoprene production facilities like Denka, aimed at further reducing lifetime exposures of facility-wide chloroprene emissions.

The existing state regulation under which Denka was permitted had set the limit at 857 mg/l, but the company entered into a consent agreement with the state Department of Environmental Quality in 2017 to reduce its emissions by 85%.

Denka reported to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality that its average emission levels at 18 fenceline monitoring stations — the number it is required to have under the new rule — in January was 0.63 micrograms per cubic meter, or twice as much as the new standard, but dramatically lower than measurements before the company entered into the consent agreement.

The company did not explain what changes it would be required to make at the plant to meet the new standards.

The final rule includes several changes from a draft version published by EPA in April 2023, including the 90-day compliance requirement. Plants are free to request an extension of that requirement, the EPA announcement said.

It also drops a requirement for ethylene oxide manufacturers that sets limits on the amount of the chemical going to flares, saying additional modeling indicated it wasn’t necessary when the other reduction requirements in the rule were followed. That will allow plants to continue to use flares to destroy the chemical to relieve excess pressure from devices holding it.

The rule also requires reductions in emissions of benzene; 1,3-butadiene; ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride, based on fenceline monitoring results. But for those chemicals and ethylene oxide, the deadline to begin fenceline monitoring will be in two years after the rule is published, which will allow commercial laboratories time to expand capacity needed to analyze samples, and the companies to identify appropriate monitoring locations.

Adoption of the new rule also seems to skirt a roadblock raised by a federal judge in Lake Charles in a January decision that at least temporarily prohibits EPA from enforcing so-called "disparate impact" rules in Louisiana. That would require industries to reduce toxic pollutants in minority and low-income areas to lower levels than in majority white areas to account for decades of past pollution.

And while the rule does not require differences in its implementation between White and minority and low-income areas, Regan said its effect would still address historic air pollution problems in those areas.

"I think it's self-evident that when you look at this rule and its application, you can determine that there are communities that are disproportionately impacted by these toxic chemicals and so by its very nature, this rule is providing protection to environmental justice communities, Black and brown communities, low-income communities that have suffered for far too long," Regan said.

Earthjustice Vice President for Healthy Communities Patrice Simms called the action “a victory in our pursuit for environmental justice, with the final rule poised to significantly reduce the toxic air pollution that harms communities in Texas’s Gulf Coast, Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, and throughout the U.S.”

Robert Taylor, with Concerned Citizens of St. John, said the new rule is a "starting point for lowering toxic emissions and saving the children in our community," after EPA dropped civil rights investigations of Louisiana's DEQ and Health Department after the disparate impact ruling.

MaryLee Orr, director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, which represents dozens of environmental groups around the state and does its own monitoring of emissions along the chemical corridor, called it “a long time coming.”

"They are a big step towards relief and vindication for communities that have been impacted by hazardous pollution for decades,” she said.

Reducing air pollutants

EPA will make the monitoring data available to the public through its WebFIRE database. Officials said using the fenceline monitoring levels as standards, each plant will have flexibility in determining what measures to take to remain below the action level.

According to EPA, the final rule will reduce more than 6,200 tons a year of more than 100 air pollutants at plants in Texas and Louisiana, and in other parts of the country, including Delaware, New Jersey, and the Ohio River Valley.

The rule includes new emissions limits for cancer-linked dioxins and furans, and will also reduce more than 23,000 tons of smog-forming volatile organic compounds each year.

Other major plants targeted by the new rules include:

ExxonMobil Baton Rouge Chemical plant; Honeywell International, Baton Rouge; Formosa Plastics, Baton Rouge; Chalmette Refining, Chalmette; Westlake Vinyls, Lion Copolymer, BASF, Methanex USA, Shell Chemical, Occidental and Rubicon in Geismar; Shell Chemicals, Norco; Dow Chemical, Axiall, Shintech Louisiana in Plaquemine; Firestone Polymers, Westlake Styrene, Westlake Petrochemicals in Sulphur; Union Carbide, Taft; Eagle US 2, Axiall, Sasol Chemicals in Westlake; YCI Methanol and FG LA LLC Sunshine Project Early Works, St. James.

Email Mark Schleifstein at mschleifstein@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter, @MSchleifstein. His work is supported with a grant funded by the Walton Family Foundation and administered by the Society of Environmental Journalists.