Groups: EPA, Others Need to Step Up Oversight of Chemical Plants

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Environmental groups in Illinois are pushing state and federal officials to tighten regulations on businesses that use toxic substances after a fire and explosion last month in north-central Illinois. A Jan. 11 fire and explosion at a chemical company in La Salle spewed a cloud of toxic particles across the area. The city of 10,000 was covered with pink dust that contained sulfuric acid, lead and mercury. Hannah Lee Flath, communications coordinator for the Sierra Club Illinois chapter, said it was clear the federal Environmental Protection Agency and its Illinois counterpart did not properly enforce existing regulations – and that local officials didn’t have an adequate disaster plan.

“Wind and weather can carry ash and smoke widely, and so folks closest to the plant are certainly more impacted immediately,” she said. “But we saw that pink material was landing on the Illinois River, and so it’s very clear that it did travel.”

Flath said she sees eerie similarities between the La Salle disaster and a recent incident in East Palestine, Ohio, where 20 derailed tanker cars burned and spread vinyl chloride and other toxins across the area. The EPA and Carus Chemical Co. did not respond by deadline to a request for comment. Flath said what happened in Illinois and Ohio are not isolated events, and both communities face long-term dangers from the toxic substances. Studies show that a chemical disaster occurs, on average, every three days in the United States, and often in less-than-affluent neighborhoods.

“These types of facilities are more frequently located in Black and Brown communities, lower-income communities that are already overburdened,” she said. “Oftentimes, these types of plants are in locations that are already struggling because of other environmental issues and pollution.”

Flath added that the Sierra Club and other environmental groups are working with the EPA and other agencies to develop proactive plans to protect communities, before and during chemical leaks.

“We’re partnering with environmental-justice organizations and other groups who work on toxics issues,” she said, “to urge the EPA and the Biden administration to make sure preventive measures are taken, to try to ensure these disasters don’t happen in the first place.”

Mark Richardson reporting

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