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Blunt Rochester, Carper push EPA to tell New Castle residents about increased cancer risk

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The Croda plant where a toxic gas leak occurred in 2018 is under renewed scrutiny after an Environmental Protection Agency Office of the Inspector General report about the dangers of ethylene oxide. 

The EPA revised its risk assessment for ethylene oxide in 2016. According to the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the agency determined the chemical was 30 times more carcinogenic than prior estimates.

Two years later, more than a ton of ethylene oxide leaked from the Croda chemical plant in suburban New Castle. 

This spring, the watchdog officeflagged the EPA for failing to meet with communities, including the Route 9 Corridor in New Castle, that the agency had identified as having elevated cancer risks from chronic exposure to ethylene oxide.

Last week Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester and Sen. Tom Carper wrote a letter to EPA Secretary Andrew Wheeler calling for senior agency officials to meet with New Castle residents within 30 days to inform them of their risk. 

“Communities have a right to know what is in the air that they’re breathing,” said Rep. Blunt Rochester. “So when this most recent report came out from the EPA Inspector General that there were dangers that were concealed from the community for over three years about ethylene oxide, we took action ”

Through its 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment, released in 2018, the EPA identified Croda’s New Castle plant as one of 25 sites across the country where exposure to ethylene oxide emissions could contribute to an elevated lifetime cancer risk “equal to or greater than 100 in one million, a risk level that the EPA generally considers not sufficiently protective of health,” the OIG report said. 

As of March, the EPA or state officials had met with residents living near nine of the 25 high-priority facilities, OIG reported. An EPA communications plan had identified potential outreach activities in New Castle for the first half of 2020, according to OIG, but neither local advocates nor Blunt Rochester were aware of any such outreach having happened.  

An EPA spokesperson declined to comment specifically on Rep. Blunt Rochester’s letter, but said in an email Friday the agency would respond “through proper channels.”

The EPA’s current strategy for addressing ethylene oxide is to support its state and local partners as they gather information on ethylene oxide emissions, look for possible emissions reductions and share information about this work with the public. In the case of New Castle, the EPA spokesperson pointed to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control's (DNREC) 2019 settlement with Crodaand the public meetingsthe state agency held following the 2018 leak.

In addition to her letter to the EPA, Rep. Blunt Rochester has helped introduce a bill that would require facilities that handle extremely hazardous substancesto meet with communities yearly and within 72 hours of any leaks. Another bill she is cosponsoring would require the EPA tostart fenceline air monitoringat facilities like Croda. 

Route 9 Corridor resident Dora Williams sees learning about the risks of ethylene oxide as a vital first step. But she also wants to know what the EPA—and DNREC—will do to reduce ethylene oxide emissions in her area. 

“I’d like to know what they're going to do going forward,” said Williams. “How are they going to cap that? How is the community going to be protected from that?”

Residents and local environmental justice advocates have been concerned about the cumulative health risks from the various industrial operations along the Route 9 Corridor for years. 

Penny Dryden, a former resident of New Castle and leader of the Delaware Environmental Justice Community Partnership, echoes Williams’ sentiment about the need for action.

“The information is good,” Dryden said. “But there needs to be some additional information, like preventive measures if you will—and what the community can do to help itself.”

Dryden has been pushing for a community-controlled air monitoring system since the 2018 Croda leak. She sees Rep. Blunt Rochester's proposed EPA monitoring as complimentary.  

Croda says it has been working to reduce ethylene oxide emissions since learning of the EPA’s 2016 risk reassessment. Company spokesperson Cara Eaton says Croda voluntarily invested in a new "air scrubber" unit in 2019 and that additional control equipment is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

“At Croda Atlas Point, the health and safety of our employees and neighbors are our highest priority,” said Eaton in an emailed statement. “We are committed to ensuring our operations are in compliance with the guidelines set forth by local, state and federal regulators.”

Eaton says Croda also maintains at least 26 “high-sensitivity” ethylene oxide monitors across its New Castle plant. 

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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