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Activists and health experts call for greater oversight of plants emitting cancer-causing pollutants in Virginia

Sign in industrial park
Sterilization Services of Virginia, located in Henrico County, is one of three industrial sites in the state that have been identified as emitting dangerous levels of cancer-causing chemicals. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Several industrial sites in Virginia have recently been identified as emitting cancer-causing chemicals into the air. Health experts and residents living near these sites say the government’s lax oversight of these plants exposes them and their neighbors to unacceptable risks.

Roger Anderson is co-leader of Cancer Control and Population Health Research at the University of Virginia. He says more needs to be done to protect people from exposure to these emissions.

“We have the tools to enforce where we don’t seem to be doing the actual enforcement,” Anderson said. “We all have to be alarmed and concerned when there is an excess risk.”

Three industrial plants in Henrico County, Hopewell and Radford have been identified in a new research map as emitting dangerous levels of cancer-causing pollution into the air that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended exposure limits. This map was created by investigative journalists at ProPublica and is an interactive tool where everyday people can look up their risk of exposure using data drawn from the EPA.

These industrial sites are overseen by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA. All of these plants emit thousands of pounds of pollutants into the air every year. Those pollutants are recorded in the EPA’s Air Pollutant Report on each plant on a yearly basis.

The 2020 report on the site in Radford, called the Radford Army Ammunitions Plant, states that the plant emitted 842 pounds of lead compounds, 1,343 pounds of nitric acid and 62,792 pounds of nitroglycerin that year alone. Exposure to all of those chemicals has been shown to increase people and animals’ risk of developing cancer.

Likewise, the plant located in Henrico, called Sterilization Services of Richmond, emitted 4,079 pounds of ethylene oxide, a chemical linked to causing cancer, into the air in 2020 according to the EPA.

The EPA also reports that the Ashland Specialty Ingredients industrial plant in Hopewell emitted thousands of pounds of cancer-causing chemicals including 63,321 pounds of chloroethane, 999 pounds of ethylene oxide, 2,294 pounds of nitric acid, 2,695 pounds of propylene oxide and 43,210 pounds of tert-butanol into the air in 2020.

That may sound like a lot of pollution, but according to the DEQ’s permits for these industrial sites, they’re authorized to emit much, much more cancer-causing emissions into the atmosphere than they already do.

At the Radford plant for example, Justine Barati, director of public affairs for the plant’s headquarters, the Joint Munitions Command, says they’re only emittings about half of what the EPA allows them to.

“Radford meets, or is well within, its emission limits for many monitored streams and has reduced emissions substantially, greater than 40%, for several emissions categories in the last five years,” Barati said.

Sterilization Services only emitted one-thousandth of 1% of its allowable emissions of ethylene oxide in 2020. The DEQ allows them to emit 34.8 pounds per hour, or 4.3 tons per year, of the cancer-causing chemical.

According to the DEQ, the Hopwell plant is allowed to emit 126 tons of chloroethane every year, which means they could have emitted 100,000 times more of the chemical in 2020 under their current permit. If these two plants were to emit all of the pollutants they’re allowed to under the DEQ’s permit, they would expose the areas surrounding them to a risk of developing cancer that’s thousands of times greater than their current exposure, which already exceeds EPA recommended limits.

Activists like Alyssa Carpenter, who says she developed health complications due to her proximity to the Radford plant, says the DEQ and EPA need to more strictly limit these plants’ allowable emissions to prevent people from developing conditions like hers.

“They're not advocating for our health and safety,” Carpenter said.

The EPA relies on these industrial sites to self-report their own emissions to the agency once a year. On the state level, they’re inspected biennially by the DEQ.

“For the Radford Army Ammunition Plant and Hercules Aqualon [Ashland], a full compliance evaluation is conducted every other year, and an average of every 3.5 years for Sterilization Services of Virginia,” said Irina Calos, DEQ community involvement coordinator. “In 2021, staff also conducted 31 partial compliance evaluations, which can include reviewing submitted data and reports as well as being on-site for smokestack emissions testing, for the Radford Army Ammunitions Plant, 15 for Hercules Aqualon and two for Sterilization Services of Virginia.”

These inspections are done to ensure the plant is in compliance with not only its permits but the Clean Air Act as well. That federal legislation has regulated air emissions nationwide since 1970. It was weakened under former President Donald Trump’s administration, but those Trump-era changes were recently reversed by President Joe Biden. Activists, however, say the penalty for violating the act is too low for enforcement to be meaningful.

Violators of the CCA face a fine of up to $45,268 per non-compliant vehicle or engine, $4,527 per tampering event and $45,268 per day for reporting and recordkeeping violations, all of which activists say corporations can easily afford.

“They're just allowed to pay fines and get away with it and do it again and pay fines. And that's the cycle,” Carpenter said.

There are provisions in the plants’ permits with the DEQ that say violating them will result in termination of the permit, but plants only need to report violations to the department and fix them in a timely manner to avoid termination.

According to Calos, the plant in Henrico has not reported any violations of its permits in the last 10 years. The plant in Hopewell has recorded three instances of excessive volatile organic compound emissions in June, July and August of 2015 that resulted in a total fine of $20,422. Organic compound emissions can include a wide range of chemical outputs, but the EPA says they can include chemicals that cause cancer in animals or are suspected of causing cancer in humans.

At the Radford plant, the DEQ has received 10 notices of violations related to its particulate pollution emissions from their on-site, coal-fired power plant over the last 10 years. Additionally in 2015, Calos says the plant was found to be in violation of its permit after an incinerator did not meet emission standards for low volatile metals. In 2017, another citation by the department was issued after some boilers at the plant did not meet emission standards. Most recently in 2018, the plant was issued a noncompliance notice when it exceeded its permitted limit for emissions of nitrogen oxide.

According to Calos, the fines resulting from these violations totaled $692,648 over 10 years. BAE Systems, the primary defense department contractor operating in the plant, profited over $1 billion in nine of those 10 years, according to Forbes.

Under their permits, all three plants must implement several procedures to minimize the frequency and duration of excess emissions. Those precautions include developing a maintenance and inspection schedule, training operators on the proper use of equipment and keeping records of their operating conditions.

The DEQ and EPA are required to monitor these industrial sites, but neither said they are under any obligation to inform community members about the dangers of living near these toxic sites.

The Hopewell and Henrico plants did not respond to our requests for an interview, but Calos said their employees receive annual training on these dangers through their hazardous communications program. Representatives of the Radford plant also present information about their emissions at community meetings, but the plants in Hopewell and Henrico did not provide VPM with proof that they have taken the same steps to involve the community.

Activists and healthcare experts say information like ProPublica’s map should galvanize community members to take action by demanding more oversight and greater transparency from industries polluting their communities with cancer-causing emissions.

“I think that we need to go back to our community leaders and our public health leaders in the commonwealth to ask for intervention,” Anderson said. “I don’t think that [excess cancer risk] is unavoidable.”