LOUISVILLE, Kentucky—A proposed rule by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would require the chemical manufacturer Chemours to follow through on a recent voluntary commitment to eliminate emissions of a climate super-pollutant from its Louisville Works chemical plant.
The company pledged in March to eliminate 99 percent or more of its emissions of hydrofluorocarbon-23 (HFC-23), a greenhouse gas thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide, from the plant by the end of 2022, after Inside Climate News inquired about emissions from the facility.
The proposed rule, released earlier this month, would require Chemours to eliminate 99.9 percent of its HFC-23 emissions by October 1, 2022, a deadline that could be extended for up to one year if the company can demonstrate that it needed more time to make the fix.
Chemours vented hundreds of tons of HFC-23 into the atmosphere from its Louisville plant, making it the largest emitter of the pollutant in the country, according to information the company submitted to the EPA for 2019, the most recent year for which data is available. HFC-23 is an unwanted byproduct that is produced in the manufacturing of hydrochlorofluorocarbon-22 (HCFC-22), a chemical ingredient in everything from Teflon to lubricants used on the International Space Station.
HFC-23 is not a local air pollutant, in that it doesn’t cause immediate health hazards or contribute to smog. From a climate perspective, however, the chemical is one of the most potent greenhouse gases warming the planet. HFC-23 is 12,400 times more potent than carbon dioxide, the primary driver of climate change. Emissions of HFC-23 from the plant are equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 671,000 automobiles, more than all cars and light-duty trucks currently registered in Louisville.
Chemours first pledged to abate emissions of HFC-23 from its facilities at a White House gathering in 2015, a pledge the company has yet to fulfill. The proposed EPA rule would now require Chemours to carry through with its recent pledge and do so on a timeline consistent with the urgency within the Biden administration to quickly address climate change.
The Chemours plant is located in an industrial zone in Louisville known as Rubbertown, which has long been a focal point of environmental justice battles. Environmental advocates in the city were appalled to learn that the single chemical plant was causing so much harm to the climate, and have been pressing Mayor Greg Fischer and the city’s air pollution control agency to get the company to reduce its sizable carbon footprint on a faster timetable.
The environmentalists saw the plant’s emissions as a black eye for a city with a goal of achieving an 80 percent reduction in citywide carbon emissions by 2050, and another target to be powered by 100 percent clean energy by 2040.
While the EPA’s proposed regulation only marginally speeds up the plant’s timetable for HFC-23, and could allow for a time extension, environmental engineer Sarah Lynn Cunningham, who is the executive director of the Louisville Climate Action Network, described the EPA’s proposal as a good step.
The federal agency’s real impact will be making the company’s voluntary pledge a mandate, she said. That’s important, she said, given that “Chemours has failed once already to deliver on its promises,” referring to its previous pledge in 2015. The company withdrew those plans even after telling local officials in 2018 they were going to install new pollution controls, according to a document obtained by Inside Climate News under the Kentucky open records law.
Thomas Sueta, a spokesperson for Chemours, said the company is committed to reducing emissions from the Louisville plant.
“We continue to look for ways to expedite our HFC-23 capture project wherever possible to meet the final timeline that EPA sets and continue to engage with the EPA on the implementation of the final rule,” he said.
The proposed rule for HFC-23 is part of a draft regulation that seeks to phase down the production and importation of HFCs by 85 percent over the next 15 years. The rule is part of a global effort to slashthe use of HFCs through an international agreement known as the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which would avoid up to 0.5 °C of global warming by 2100. HFCs, commonly used as refrigerants in refrigerators and air conditioners, are far more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide and can be readily replaced by other chemicals with greatly reduced carbon footprints.
The EPA’s proposed regulation has been hailed as “the first significant step” the agency has taken under President Biden to curb climate change.
Much of the agency’s proposed rule was preordained after Congress passed legislation in December calling for an 85 percent phase down of HFCs over the next 15 years. The legislation had industry support as well as broad bipartisan support and was signed into law by then President Trump late last year, as part of a larger Covid-19 relief package.
The agency was widely praised by environmental advocates for the speed with which it drafted the proposed rule, and for its thoroughness in seeking to quickly rein in the most potent HFCs.
“This was a really swift proposed regulation and given how swift it was, it was even more exciting to see that they have not compromised on ambition,” said Avipsa Mahapatra, climate campaign lead for the Environmental Investigation Agency, a non-profit organization based in Washington.
The proposed rule notes that Congress gave the agency “significant discretion” in how to regulate HFCs and places particular emphasis on HFC-23.
“Congress was well aware of the potential impact of this substance and intended for it to be regulated on that basis,” the proposed rulemaking states, noting that HFC-23 is far more potent as a greenhouse gas than any other hydrofluorocarbon.
“At long last we have seen the federal government recognize that this is a major issue and needs to be tackled through regulations,” Mahapatra said.
However, Mahapatra said EIA continues to believe, as it has previously called for publicly, that Chemours should immediately cease HCFC-22 production at its Louisville Works until it can capture and destroy all of the HFC-23 emissions.
The proposed rulemaking does not call for an immediate shutdown. But the EPA justified its regulation of HFC-23 emissions by noting that some facilities are already eliminating 99.9 percent or more of their emissions.
Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, said the ability some companies have already shown to abate HFC-23 emissions means Chemours should not get any extensions beyond next October.
“Failing to capture and destroy HFC-23 is the hallmark of an irresponsible operation, and we can no longer afford to be irresponsible with our climate,” Zaelke said.
Racheal Hamilton, a top official with the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District, said she was still reviewing the EPA’s proposal and wasn’t sure whether the city will send the federal agency formal comments on it.
“Candidly, I expected (these) regulations coming out of this White House and this EPA and I am so pleased they are coming out so quickly,” said Hamilton. “This is exactly the type of national strategy that is needed to manage greenhouse gases.”
National regulations like these will also help Louisville reach its overall climate goals, she added.
Cunningham, of the Louisville Climate Action Network, said the EPA now needs to go further and force Chemours to reduce its emissions of HCFC-22, which is both a climate pollutant and destroyer of the Earth’s protective ozone layer. The company recently announced unspecified voluntary reductions in those emissions “by the end of 2024.”
The production and use of HCFC-22 was banned in the United States and other developed countries on January 1, 2020, under the Montreal Protocol. Chemours is exempt from the ban because the HCFC-22 produced in Louisville is used as a feedstock to manufacture Teflon and other fluoropolymers that do not damage the ozone layer.