Dow Chemical to spend $294 million to reduce air pollution in Louisiana, Texas after settlement

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) said they reached a settlement with Dow Chemical and two subsidiaries that will lead to $294 million in spending to reduce air pollution.

Dow's facilities in Plaquemine, Louisiana. Image courtesy of Dow.

Dow and its subsidiaries will “install and operate air pollution control and monitoring technology to reduce flaring and the resulting harmful air pollution,” the Department of Justice (DOJ) said on Jan. 20.

Works will be needed in 26 industrial flares in Dow’s owned and operated facilities in Freeport, Texas and Plaquemine, Louisiana, as well as in the Dow-subsidiary Union Carbide’s facilities in Hahnville, Louisiana and at a the Dow-owned Performance Materials plant in Orange, Texas.

“The settlement resolves allegations that Dow and its subsidiaries violated the Clean Air Act by failing to properly operate and monitor industrial flares at their petrochemical facilities, which resulted in excess emissions of harmful air pollution,” the DOJ said.

Controls to cut 5,600 tons/year of pollution

“Once fully implemented, the pollution controls required by the settlement are estimated to reduce harmful air emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by more than 5,600 tons per year,” the DOJ said.

According to the EPA, VOCs are gases emitted from certain solids or liquids that include various chemicals. They may affect the liver, kidney or nervous system. Some may cause cancer in humans, the EPA said.

Plaquemine is located alongside the Mississippi River just south of Baton Rouge. Hahnville is located down the Mississippi River, just west of New Orleans.

“The settlement is also expected to reduce toxic air pollutants, including benzene, by nearly 500 tons per year, the DOJ said.

Benzene is a building block in the petrochemical industry. It helps to make other chemicals that go into plastics, resins, nylons and multiple other products.

“The pollutants addressed by the settlement can cause significant harm to public health. VOCs are a key component in the formation of smog or ground-level ozone, a pollutant that irritates lungs, exacerbates diseases such as asthma, and can increase susceptibility to respiratory illnesses, such as pneumonia and bronchitis,” the statement said.

Meantime, “chronic exposure to benzene, which the EPA classifies as a carcinogen, can cause numerous health impacts, including leukemia and adverse reproductive effects in women,” it added.

“Cancer Alley”

According to an October 2019 report by non-profit newsroom Pro Publica, in coordination with Louisiana newspapers The Times Picayune and The Advocate, residents have been battling pollution at least since the early 1990s that many attribute to a cluster of chemical companies along the Mississippi.

“The stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is nicknamed ‘Cancer Alley’ because of its concentration of petrochemical facilities,” the report said. The problem is most acute in communities near plants. They are predominantly black and poor, it said.

The Pro Publica report said that Louisiana state regulators only look at one chemical at a time, “potentially undercounting the true effects.” While state data doesn’t show a link between cancer and local chemical producers, residents of some areas “see cancer everywhere, and they blame the plants,” it added.

Scalawag, a journalism organization that describes itself as standing in solidarity with marginalized southern communities, reported in December 2020 higher proportions of Covid-19 deaths in areas near chemical clusters, which could mean that poorer lung conditions due to chronic exposure may have made some more vulnerable, it said.

Distribution of the $294 million spending

To minimize the waste gas sent to the flares at each facility, Dow will operate flare gas recovery systems that recover and ‘recycle’ the gases instead of sending them to be combusted in a flare.

The flare gas recovery systems will allow Dow to reuse these gases as a fuel at its facilities or a product for sale, the DOJ report said.

Dow will also perform air quality monitoring that is designed to detect the presence of benzene at the fence lines of the four covered plants, and pay a civil penalty of $3 million.

“The LDEQ will receive $675,000 of the $3 million total civil penalty, and Dow will perform three state-authorized ‘beneficial environmental projects’ in Louisiana that were negotiated by Louisiana,” the report said.

Dow posted revenue for the third quarter ended September of $9.7 billion. Cash from operating activities in the July-September period was $1.8 billion. Dividend returns to shareholders totaled $518 million in the quarter.

EPA’s role in controlling Gulf Coast pollution

“This settlement means cleaner air for communities across Texas and Louisiana and reinforces EPA’s commitment to enforce the law and hold those who violate it accountable,” said Susan Bodine, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

Jonathan Brightbill, acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said the settlement “demonstrates” the Justice Department and EPA’s efforts to protect the American public.

The role of the EPA and federal agencies in protecting Gulf Coast residents from pollution has come into question in recent years.

In one case that in March 2020 was featured in a Dirty Money episode of Netflix, residents of areas around Port Lavaca, Texas accused Formosa Plastics of discharging plastic pellets and polluting waters. This resulted in a $50-million settlement in December 2019, with funds going to remedy work.

The episode detailed how in the Formosa case the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the EPA “are failing consumers and endangering their health,” according to a summary of the episode by a Taipei Times editorial on May 3, 2020. Formosa is based in Taiwan.

The Victoria Advocate reported at the time of the episode that the documentary challenged assumptions taken for granted, including the efficiency of the FDA and EPA as regulators.

The lawsuit had started in 2017 in federal court under a law that allows citizens to sue industrial polluters when government regulators fail to act, according to a March 2019 report by The Texas Tribune newspaper.

By Renzo Pipoli