Groups Seek Court's Protection from PVC Plant Pollution

Citizens in communities affected by cancer-causing air pollution from vinyl manufacturers went to court on Oct. 22 to ask the federal government to regulate the host of toxins released from these plants.

The nonprofit public interest law firm Earthjustice filed the lawsuit in federal district court in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the Sierra Club and two community groups in Louisiana -- Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN) and Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN).

Each year, poly vinyl chloride (PVC) plants pump some 500,000 pounds of vinyl chloride -- a known human carcinogen -- and many other toxins into the atmosphere. In spite of the documented effects of these cancer-causing chemicals, the federal government has kept the industry's air emissions largely unregulated.

Mossville, La., with its four vinyl production facilities, including two major vinyl chloride manufacturers, is considered the unofficial PVC capital of America. Mossville residents Edgar Mouton and Dorothy Felix have spent much of the past decade fighting to protect their families from the cancer-causing chemicals.

"We're being hit from the north, south, east, and west. Every time the wind changes, we get a lungful of pollution from some other plant." said Edgar Mouton, a Mossville resident and retired chemical plant employee. "These chemicals end up in our water, our gardens, our children's bodies. Each day we hear about someone in our community being diagnosed with cancer or another illness. We're taking legal action so that we might live to see some improvements for ourselves and our community."

Louisiana is home to six of the nation's 21 PVC plants. Six more plants are located in Texas. The remaining plants are found in New Jersey, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.

"Air pollution from PVC plants is a serious problem in Louisiana. In Baton Rouge alone, we have four of these plants, and they're talking about building a fifth," said Gary Miller an engineer with Louisiana Environmental Action Network. "This is one of our region's most toxic industries. It only makes sense that it be subject to correspondingly strong rules."

A 2004 federal court ruling in a case brought by Earthjustice on behalf of MEAN and Sierra Club found the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's lax approach to regulating air pollution from PVC plants violated the law and threw out the insufficient standards. Four years later, the agency has yet to develop any new standards.

The Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set emission standards for each hazardous air pollutant PVC plants emit. But the EPA in 2002 decided to set standards for just one: vinyl chloride.

This leaves plants' emissions of dioxins, chromium, lead, chlorine, and hydrogen chloride -- substances associated with a wide variety of serious adverse health effects including cancer -- entirely unchecked. Further, the vinyl chloride standard did not require plants to reduce emissions. Air monitoring conducted by EPA has shown that PVC plants have emitted concentrations of vinyl chloride at more than 120 times higher than the ambient air standard.

Perhaps the most striking example of the need for stronger protections is in Mossville, where health studies found blood levels of dioxin rivaling those seen in workers involved in industrial accidents. Randomly tested residents had levels nearly 10 times the national average, with some individuals showing dioxin levels 100 times the national average. Toxicologists studying these results called them some of the highest levels ever reported in the United States from an environmental exposure.

A 1998 study by the Medical Branch of the University of Texas, Galveston found that 99 percent of Mossville residents suffered from at least one disease or illness related to toxic chemical exposure.

PVC is used in a range of plastic products from vinyl siding, plumbing, carpet backing, and appliances to raincoats and seat covers.

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