WSAZ Investigates | Lawmakers respond to cancer-causing chemicals risk in Kanawha County

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito answers questions about EtO emissions in Kanawha County.
U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito answers questions about EtO emissions in Kanawha County.
Published: Feb. 22, 2022 at 7:38 PM EST
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KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) - For more than a month, WSAZ has been trying to get an interview and other information from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) about concerns over emissions of ethylene oxide, known as EtO, in Kanawha County, but our requests have been denied.

EtO is a colorless, odorless gas that can cause cancer. In March 2020, the EPA declared areas surrounding two Union Carbide plants in Institute and South Charleston hotspots. That means they are among the 25 communities that have potentially the highest risk from EtO emissions in the entire country.

“We have a benchmark of one in 10,000, as a hotspot,” EPA air quality branch chief Alice Chow said. “That’s a screening level in which EPA says, ‘hey, through modeling, we think this is an area in which you need to look at,’ which is exactly what we’re doing in the West Virginia area.”

WSAZ then tried to get more information about what is being done to protect people in these areas by asking the DEP and Gov. Jim Justice (R-W.Va.). Our interview requests were not granted, so we took these concerns to other lawmakers.

“The most important thing that we can do in a public sector, if you’re a public servant is let the public know what’s going on,” U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said. “If you don’t know something, let them know you’re working on if you do know something, tell them the good, bad, and the ugly, if you will.”

“We have the lines of communication open,” Manchin said. “We’re going to make sure the DEP, I will tell them if they’re not going to speak I will speak for them.”

Manchin said these plants produce important chemicals that are used everyday, but he is working with the EPA to see what can be done to protect people from high emissions.

“The federal EPA has the ability to come in and evaluate the emissions, if they’re harmful to humans, if we can reduce and do something in a different way, that’s what’s that’s what needs to be done as quickly as possible,” Manchin said. We want to assist in that. So, we’re going to do everything humanly possible that we can to make sure that our plant in West Virginia is as safe as possible and making sure there’s no harmful effects from that. That’s our responsibility. That’s the West Virginia DPS responsibility. That’s the federal EPA responsibility, working together.”

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) is a ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the EPA. Capito said EtO is a pollutant of concern and she is committed to get answers.

“We’ve been made aware of the situation several months ago, as I recall, and we have been working proactively, my office and my committee, the West Virginia DEP with DOW and also with EPA to monitor the situation,” Capito said when WSAZ asked her about the issue on Wednesday morning. “We know that there are certain levels of emissions that are permitted through their permit and we want to make sure the transparency and that they are following the guidelines as they should be. So, we are well aware of this and we are right on top of it.”

“I think we are obviously trying to get the transparency of the information between EPA and DEP and the DOW facilities to make sure they are within the proper amounts of emissions,” Capito said. “I think we need to let the public know.”

That’s a similar message to what we heard when we went to the West Virginia Capitol and asked Sen. Richard Lindsay (D-Kanawha) about the issue. He represents people who live in these areas and has sent a letter to the DEP asking for transparency.

Letter from Sen. Richard Lindsay
Letter from Sen. Richard Lindsay(WSAZ with permission)

“The DEP is charged with making us safe, and explaining the risks and the safety of just about everything that happens when it comes to environmental concerns,” Lindsay said. “And in that, I believe they had failed to date on this particular issue.”

“That’s a significant risk for the people of West Virginia, that’s a significant risk for the people I represent,” Lindsay said. “And again, they deserve a conversation. They deserve to know exactly what that risk is. And if it’s not known today, they should feel comfortable in the belief through the DEP explaining when they’ll when they will know and what can what actions can be taken in response.”

Lindsay said he has not heard back from the DEP about the letter he sent last week.

Sen. Eric Nelson (R-Kanawha) also represents the people who live in those areas. He said he is working to do more research on the issue, but thinks the DEP should work with the chemical companies and hold additional community meetings to better inform the public. The DEP said a meeting is scheduled for the spring.

“I think we’re concerned about everybody’s health here in the (Kanawha) Valley,” Nelson said. “Whether it’s something that’s produced from our chemical companies, the many that smoke. I mean, when we talk about cancer, you know, most of this does come from smoking, but, we are concerned about all our health.”

Manchin said he is going to reach out to the DEP directly in hopes of getting answers to the questions that we have been asking for more than a month and hopes to have that information by the end of this week.

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