The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a $1 million fine against a global plastics producer for alleged Clean Air Act violations at its plants in two small, polluted communities seven hours apart in Alabama and Indiana.
The civil penalty against SABIC Innovative Plastics, announced May 31, targets leak detection and repair failings that resulted in hundreds of tons of hazardous air pollutant releases every year, the federal agency said.
SABIC, a global producer of polymers and thermoplastics, is a top employer in the two towns involved: Burkville, a rural community best known for hosting Alabama’s annual Okra Festival, and Mount Vernon, a town of just under 6,700 nestled in the southernmost tip of Indiana.
The EPA’s 15-count complaint said SABIC skirted Clean Air Act rules on monitoring and repairing equipment leaks, complying with chemical plant regulations and reporting known violations. SABIC agreed to the penalty to settle the case.
The Mount Vernon plant recently won several environmental awards. In 2011, the National Pollution Prevention Roundtable recognized it with a Most Valuable Pollution Prevention award. This April, the plant won three Responsible Care Energy Efficiency Awards from the American Chemistry Council.
SABIC said in a news release at the time that such recognition demonstrates its commitment to “minimize environmental impact while strengthening operational excellence.”
Now, SABIC must reform its monitoring practices, replace valves, reengineer emission controls and invest in an environmental project to control hazardous air emissions. The upgrades will cost the company $5.3 million, the EPA said, and reduce air emissions by up to 137 tons per year.
The EPA has brought several other recent Clean Air Act cases. Last November, for instance, Dow Chemical in Midland, Mich., agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle charges of clean-air, clean-water and solid-waste violations.
“Communities near large industrial facilities depend on EPA to protect public health and the environment by enforcing our nation’s environmental laws,” said Cynthia Giles, an EPA assistant administrator, in a statement.
Yet some locals question the significance of the EPA’s civil penalty.
“One million dollars between two plants isn’t much,” said Mike Callis, a cow, soybean and vegetable farmer who lives two miles from the Alabama plant. “These big corporations just pay the fines and keep on ticking.”
And, activists say, the environmental challenges add another hurdle for low-income communities like Burkville.
“When you’re poor, you’re so busy surviving. You have different priorities than people who are not poor,” said Barbara Evans, former organizing coordinator at WildLaw, an environmental law firm that closed from lack of funding. “It’s hard to say to people, ‘Are you worried about clean air?’ ”
The SABIC plant in Burkville has been fined before for environmental violations, paying a $60,000 clean air penalty in 2010. Federal records show its released chemicals decreased to less than 100,000 pounds of on-site releases annually for 2007 through 2009, then increased to 283,673 pounds in 2010.
SABIC Innovative Plastics was formed in 2007 when General Electric sold GE Plastics to Saudi Arabia’s largest public company, SABIC, for $11 billion. Its Mount Vernon location was founded in 1960 as GE’s first plastics facility and remains SABIC’s largest plastics plant in the U.S.
SABIC said it is committed to “100 percent compliance” with state and federal regulations.
According to a company statement, EPA compliance audits begun in 2005 had found “concerns” at two SABIC sites. The company “immediately began to address the concerns,” the company said, working to “ensure full compliance going forward.”
Under the EPA’s Clean Air Act Stationary Source Compliance Monitoring Strategy, any facility identified as a “major source” of air pollutants should receive a full compliance evaluation every two years. An EPA statement said these audits and most “day-to-day enforcement” are delegated to state and local authorities. The federal agency steps in “when addressing complex cases” or “when states fail to take necessary action,” the EPA told the Center for Public Integrity.
The EPA initiated its State Review Framework system in 2004 to assess state enforcement of federal clean air, clean water and solid waste laws.
Indiana’s first round of framework reviews in 2005 returned 35 records of inconsistency with national standards, including failure to identify high production pollution sources, neglecting to report enforcement history in monitoring reports, and unjustified reductions of penalties.
John Blair, a photojournalist and president of environmental activist group Valley Watch, has been fighting industrial pollution in Indiana since the early 1990s, when the plant belonged to GE.
In 1999, GE’s Mount Vernon plant ranked as the fourth-highest toxic chemical release source in Indiana, reporting 2.5 million pounds of on-site releases. From 2006 on, releases were considerably lower, about 1.5 million pounds per year, until a 2010 increase to 2.2 million pounds of on-site chemical releases.
The chemicals include highly corrosive phenol and ethylbenzene, which can damage the liver, kidney and central nervous system.
“People in the medical community know we have this problem, but don’t want to stand up and do anything about it,” Blair said. “It’s just tradition to let business do what they want in Indiana.”