The Environmental Protection Agency recently gave a Chevron refinery the green light to create fuel from discarded plastics as part of a “climate-friendly” initiative to boost alternatives to petroleum. But, according to agency records obtained by ProPublica and The Guardian, the production of one of the fuels could emit air pollution that is so toxic, 1 out of 4 people exposed to it over a lifetime could get cancer.
“That kind of risk is obscene,” said Linda Birnbaum, former head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “You can’t let that get out.”
That risk is 250,000 times greater than the level usually considered acceptable by the EPA division that approves new chemicals. Chevron hasn’t started making this jet fuel yet, the EPA said. When the company does, the cancer burden will disproportionately fall on people who have low incomes and are Black because of the population that lives within 3 miles of the refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
ProPublica and The Guardian asked Maria Doa, a scientist who worked at the EPA for 30 years, to review the document laying out the risk. Doa, who once ran the division that managed the risks posed by chemicals, was so alarmed by the cancer threat that she initially assumed it was a typographical error. “EPA should not allow these risks in Pascagoula or anywhere,” said Doa, who now is the senior director of chemical policy at Environmental Defense Fund.
In response to questions from ProPublica and The Guardian, an EPA spokesperson wrote that the agency’s lifetime cancer risk calculation is “a very conservative estimate with ‘high uncertainty,’” meaning the government erred on the side of caution in calculating such a high risk.
Under federal law, the EPA can’t approve new chemicals with serious health or environmental risks unless it comes up with ways to minimize the dangers. And if the EPA is unsure, the law allows the agency to order lab testing that would clarify the potential health and environmental harms. In the case of these new plastic-based fuels, the agency didn’t do either of those things. In approving the jet fuel, the EPA didn’t require any lab tests, air monitoring or controls that would reduce the release of the cancer-causing pollutants or people’s exposure to them.
In January 2022, the EPA announced the initiative to streamline the approval of petroleum alternatives in what a press release called “part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s actions to confront the climate crisis.” While the program cleared new fuels made from plants, it also signed off on fuels made from plastics even though they themselves are petroleum-based and contribute to the release of planet-warming greenhouse gases.
Although there’s no mention of discarded plastics in the press release or on the EPA website’s description of the program, an agency spokesperson told ProPublica and The Guardian that it allows them because the initiative also covers fuels made from waste. The spokesperson said that 16 of the 34 fuels the program approved so far are made from waste. She would not say how many of those are made from plastic and stated that such information was confidential.
All of the waste-based fuels are the subject of consent orders, documents the EPA issues when it finds that new chemicals or mixtures may pose an “unreasonable risk” to human health or the environment. The documents specify those risks and the agency’s instructions for mitigating them.
But the agency won’t turn over these records or reveal information about the waste-based fuels, even their names and chemical structures. Without those basic details, it’s nearly impossible to determine which of the thousands of consent orders on the EPA website apply to this program. In keeping this information secret, the EPA cited a legal provision that allows companies to claim as confidential any information that would give their competitors an advantage in the marketplace.
Nevertheless, ProPublica and The Guardian did obtain one consent order that covers a dozen Chevron fuels made from plastics that were reviewed under the program. Although the EPA had blacked out sections, including the chemicals’ names, that document showed that the fuels that Chevron plans to make at its Pascagoula refinery present serious health risks, including developmental problems in children and cancer and harm to the nervous system, reproductive system, liver, kidney, blood and spleen.
Aside from the chemical that carries a 25% lifetime risk of cancer from smokestack emissions, another of the Chevron fuels ushered in through the program is expected to cause 1.2 cancers in 10,000 people — also far higher than the agency allows for the general population. The EPA division that screens new chemicals typically limits cancer risk from a single air pollutant to 1 case of cancer in a million people. The agency also calculated that air pollution from one of the fuels is expected to cause 7.1 cancers in every 1,000 workers — more than 70 times the level EPA’s new chemicals division usually considers acceptable for workers.
In addition to the chemicals released through the creation of fuels from plastics, the people living near the Chevron refinery are exposed to an array of other cancer-causing pollutants, as ProPublica reported in 2021. In that series, which mapped excess cancer risk from lifetime exposure to air pollution across the U.S., the highest chance was 1 cancer in 53 people, in Port Arthur, Texas.
The 1-in-4 lifetime cancer risk from breathing the emissions from the Chevron jet fuel is higher even than the lifetime risk of lung cancer for current smokers.
In an email, Chevron spokesperson Ross Allen wrote: “It is incorrect to say there is a 1-in-4 cancer risk from smokestack emissions. I urge you avoid suggesting otherwise.” Asked to clarify what exactly was wrong, Allen wrote that Chevron disagrees with ProPublica and The Guardian’s “characterization of language in the EPA Consent Order.” That document, signed by a Chevron manager at its refinery in Pascagoula, quantified the lifetime cancer risk from the inhalation of smokestack air as 2.5 cancers in 10 people, which can also be stated as 1 in 4.
In a subsequent phone call, Allen said: “We do take care of our communities, our workers and the environment generally. This is job one for Chevron.”
In a separate written statement, Chevron said it followed the EPA’s process under the Toxic Substances Control Act: “The TSCA process is an important first step to identify risks and if EPA identifies unreasonable risk, it can limit or prohibit manufacture, processing or distribution in commerce during applicable review period.”
The Chevron statement also said: “Other environmental regulations and permitting processes govern air, water and handling hazardous materials. Regulations under the Clean Water, Clean Air and Resource Conservation and Recovery Acts also apply and protect the environment and the health and safety of our communities and workers.”
Similarly, the EPA said that other federal laws and requirements might reduce the risk posed by the pollution, including Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s regulations for worker protection, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and rules that apply to refineries.
But OSHA has warned the public not to rely on its outdated chemical standards. The refinery rule calls for air monitoring only for one pollutant: benzene. The Clean Water Act does not address air pollution. And the new fuels are not regulated under the Clean Air Act, which applies to a specific list of pollutants. Nor can states monitor for the carcinogenic new fuels without knowing their names and chemical structures.
We asked Scott Throwe, an air pollution specialist who worked at the EPA for 30 years, how existing regulations could protect people in this instance. Now an independent environmental consultant, Throwe said the existing testing and monitoring requirements for refineries couldn’t capture the pollution from these new plastic-based fuels because the rules were written before these chemicals existed. There is a chance that equipment designed to limit the release of other pollutants may incidentally capture some of the emissions from the new fuels, he said. But there’s no way to know whether that is happening.
Under federal law, companies have to apply to the EPA for permission to introduce new chemicals or mixtures. But manufacturers don’t have to supply any data showing their products are safe. So the EPA usually relies on studies of similar chemicals to anticipate health effects. In this case, the EPA used a mixture of chemicals made from crude oil to gauge the risks posed by the new plastic-based fuels. Chevron told the EPA the chemical components of its new fuel but didn’t give the precise proportions. So the EPA had to make some assumptions, for instance that people absorb 100% of the pollution emitted.
Asked why it didn’t require tests to clarify the risks, a spokesperson wrote that the “EPA does not believe these additional test results would change the risks identified nor the unreasonable risks finding.”
In her three decades at the EPA, Doa had never seen a chemical with that high a cancer risk that the agency allowed to be released into a community without restrictions.
“The only requirement seems to be just to use the chemicals as fuel and have the workers wear gloves,” she said.
While companies have made fuels from discarded plastics before, this EPA program gives them the same administrative break that renewable fuels receive: a dedicated EPA team that combines the usual six regulatory assessments into a single report.
The irony is that Congress created the Renewable Fuel Standard Program, which this initiative was meant to support, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost the production of renewable fuels. Truly renewable energy sources can be regenerated in a short period of time, such as plants or algae. While there is significant debate about whether ethanol, which is made from corn, and other plant-based renewable fuels are really better for the environment than fossil fuels, there is no question that plastics are not renewable and that their production and conversion into fuel releases climate-harming pollution.
Under the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard, biobased fuels must meet specific criteria related to their biological origin as well as the amount they reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared with petroleum-based fuels. But under this new approach, fuels made from waste don’t have to meet those targets, the agency said.
In its written statement, Chevron said that “plastics are an essential part of modern life and plastic waste should not end up in unintended places in the environment. We are taking steps to address plastic waste and support a circular economy in which post-use plastic is recycled, reused or repurposed.”
But environmentalists say such claims are just greenwashing.
Whatever you call it, the creation of fuel from plastic is in some ways worse for the climate than simply making it directly from fossil fuels. Over 99% of all plastic is derived from fossil fuels, including coal, oil and gas. To produce fuel from plastics, additional fossil fuels are used to generate the heat that converts them into petrochemicals that can be used as fuel.
“It adds an extra step,” said Veena Singla, a senior scientist at NRDC. “They have to burn a lot of stuff to power the process that transforms the plastic.”
Less than 6% of plastic is recycled in the U.S. Much of the rest — millions of tons of it — ends up in the oceans each year, killing marine mammals and polluting the world. Plastic does not fully decompose; instead it eventually breaks down into tiny bits, some of which wind up inside our bodies. As the public’s awareness of the health and environmental harm grows, the plastics industry has found itself under increasing pressure to find a use for the waste.
The idea of creating fuel from plastic offers the comforting sense that plastics are sustainable. But the release of cancer-causing pollution is just one of several significant problems that have plagued attempts to convert discarded plastic into new things. One recent study by scientists from the Department of Energy found that the economic and environmental costs of turning old plastic into new using a process called pyrolysis were 10 to 100 times higher than those of making new plastics from fossil fuels. The lead author said similar issues plague the use of this process to create fuels from plastics.
Chevron buys oil that another company extracts from discarded plastics through pyrolysis. Though the parts of the consent order that aren’t blacked out don’t mention that this oil came from waste plastics, a related EPA record makes this clear. The cancer risks come from the pollution emitted from Chevron’s smokestacks when the company turns that oil into fuel.
The EPA attributed its decision to embark on the streamlined program in part to its budget, which it says has been “essentially flat for the last six years.” The EPA spokesperson said that the agency “has been working to streamline its new chemicals work wherever possible.”
The New Chemicals Division, which houses the program, has been under particular pressure because updates to the chemicals law gave it additional responsibilities and faster timetables. That division of the agency is also the subject of an ongoing EPA Inspector General investigation into whistleblowers’ allegations of corruption and industry influence over the chemical approval process.
Feb. 23, 2023: This story originally misstated how much plastic ends up in the oceans each year. It is millions of tons, not hundreds of millions of tons.