The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday issued a landmark climate rule that will phase down U.S. production and use of potent greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that are commonly used in refrigeration and air conditioning equipment.
The regulation brings the United States into compliance with an international climate agreement—known as the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol—that China, the world’s largest producer of HFCs, began enforcing earlier this month. It also gives President Biden a strong talking point heading into United Nations-led climate negotiations, scheduled for November in Glasgow. The agreement is expected to avoid up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of global warming by 2100 if all countries sign on.
But challenges remain. The requirement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions nationally may, paradoxically, increase air pollution locally for at least one community. The trade-off has raised environmental justice concerns in Kentucky and may increase pollution in a West Virginia community already hammered by environmental contamination.
At the same time, a recent Inside Climate News investigation found that China faces numerous obstacles to enforcing and verifying similar emissions reductions that Chinese officials are now bound to implement.
The new U.S. regulation requires American manufacturers to reduce HFC production and consumption by 85 percent over the next 15 years, as mandated by the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act, legislation backed by industry with bipartisan support that was enacted in December 2020.
The rule also requires chemical plants to stop emitting all but trace amounts of the most potent hydrofluorocarbon, HFC-23, a greenhouse gas that is 14,600 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in warming the atmosphere, by October 2022.
“This is a landmark piece of climate rulemaking in the United States, and its impacts and what the rule enshrines, will go a long way in meeting U.S. climate goals overall,” said Avipsa Mahapatra, climate campaign lead at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a nonprofit environmental organization based in Washington.
The rule will require refrigeration, air conditioning and building insulation manufacturers to dramatically reduce the use of high global warming gases, and to develop sustainable, energy efficient alternatives, Mahapatra said.
HFCs Equal the Greenhouse Emissions of Millions of Automobiles
The new EPA regulation on HFCs included wide ranging measures that should allow the agency and other federal regulators to effectively detect and block illegal HFCs from being smuggled into the United States once the phasedown takes effect, Mahapatra said.
Illegal imports of banned HFCs have undermined the effectiveness of a similar HFC phasedown that the European Union began in 2015.
HFC chemicals smuggled into EU countries in 2018 had a climate impact equal to as much as 16.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to an EIA report based on an analysis of EU customs data. That is equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 3.5 million U.S. automobiles, according to the EPA’s greenhouse gas equivalency calculator.
U.S. regulations published last week will prohibit the use of disposable cylinders, which are hard to trace, and will instead require refillable cylinders, labeled with QR codes, that allow for real time tracking of chemical shipments. Separate from the rule, the Biden Administration will also create an interagency task force on illegal HFC trade, led by EPA and Department of Homeland Security officials, a “gold star” approach that Mahapatra said could serve as a model for other countries that have struggled to enforce similar phasedowns.
Cynthia Giles, who headed the EPA’s office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance during the Obama administration, agreed.
“The phasedown has to really work in order to achieve the climate objectives,” Giles said. “And I think this rule is one of the most innovative designs I have seen in any environmental rule to drive better compliance.”
Chemours is Largest U.S. Emitter
Others, however, expressed concern over how the new EPA rule will be implemented, particularly as it pertains to HFC-23, an unwanted by-product resulting from the production of HCFC-22, a chemical used to make Teflon and other products.
Under the rule, chemical plants will no longer be able to vent the gas into the atmosphere. Instead, they must either find a use for, or destroy, 99.9 percent of the HFC-23 that they produce by October 2022. The regulation allows for up to two six-month extensions to this deadline.
“The project is scheduled for completion in 2022, and our team is working hard to meet the Oct. 1, 2022 timeline,” Thomas Sueta, a spokesperson for Chemours, said.
The chemical company Chemours is the largest emitter of HFC-23 in the country, by far. The company emitted 251 tons of HFC-23 from its Louisville Works plant in Louisville, Kentucky in 2019, emissions equal to the greenhouse gas equivalent of 671,000 vehicles.
In Louisville, the Chemours plant’s emissions became a source of alarm and unwelcome notoriety after Inside Climate News reported they were doing more damage to the climate than all the passenger vehicles and light-duty trucks registered in Louisville and Jefferson County.
Although Louisville is in a state dominated by coal burning for electricity, with deep cultural and economic roots in coal mining, the city’s mayor, Greg Fischer, during a 2019 youth climate strike, declared a climate emergency and is among nearly 500 mayors who have pledged to work toward achieving the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
A leading environmental justice advocate, Arnita Gadson, executive director of the West Jefferson County Community Task Force, said the new EPA rule is consistent with Louisville’s plan to reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. But Gadson said the EPA rule leaves an important topic unresolved, and that’s how to safely incinerate emissions of the climate super-pollutant.
“The issue that’s still on the table is the destruction of the product and what additional exposure that would bring to the community” if incineration of HFC-23 were to result in other, toxic emissions, Gadson said.
Chemours’ facility is located in a complex of chemical plants known as Rubbertown, where environmental justice battles over toxic air pollution have been waged since the 1990s. Gadson said she’d also be concerned if the company were to move the HFC destruction process to another location, where there might be other environmental justice concerns.
Louisville residents, she said, would also want assurances that all proper environmental justice assessments have been completed before the controls are put in place. Incineration of the super-pollutant must also meet all mandatory standards by the targeted completion date, she said.
Louisville has its own air pollution control agency, and that agency’s interim director, Rachael Hamilton, said she had not reviewed the rule’s final wording yet but that it seems clear that EPA is taking the reduction of these pollutants seriously.
In a letter to the EPA commenting on the rule as it was proposed, Hamilton noted that greenhouse gases, including HFCs, were “leading to changes in the Earth’s climate including changes in the frequency and intensity of heat waves, precipitation, and extreme weather events, rising seas, and retreating snow and ice,” and that Louisville was experiencing those changes as well.
Specifically, she wrote, the portion of Louisville where the Chemours plant is located has become “vulnerable to flooding and extreme heat, due in part to the urban heat island effect and lack of tree canopy,” and that neighborhoods near the Chemours plant “have poorer health outcomes due to a variety of societal and environmental factors, including exposure to disparate emissions of air toxics pollution.”
Within three miles of the Chemours plant, 64 percent of the population is Black, Hamilton wrote, adding that EPA counts 19 neighboring industrial facilities within three miles that release toxic chemicals in sufficient qualities that they are required to report them to the federal agency for public disclosure. The area suffers from noticeably higher risks from toxic chemicals than the national average, and the nearby neighborhoods have lower median incomes and higher poverty levels.
While HFC-23 is not itself considered a toxic air contaminant, the Louisville agency said it was concerned with pollution that could be emitted when it is destroyed by incineration.
With environmental justice concerns in mind, the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District suggested in their comments to the EPA “that additional analysis be conducted regarding potential localized harm from the byproducts of required destruction of HFC-23, as well as of potential substitutes and feedstocks for those substitutes, and that care should be taken to avoid any additional burden in [environmental justice] communities.”
The district added, “This could take the form of additional requirements for location of destruction equipment, required control of byproducts of combustion or oxidation, additional credits for capture and beneficial reuse, or prioritization of lowest emissions technologies for destruction.”
In March, Inside Climate News reported that in 2018, Chemours had been in the planning stages of building its own on-site incinerator in Louisville, but that company executives were no longer pursuing such a plan and would instead capture and send the HFC-23 to an off-site destruction facility.
Sueta said Friday that the company will not incinerate HFC-23 at its Louisville Works but will instead ship the pollutant to Washington, West Virginia, where the company will incinerate the gas at its Washington Works facility.
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Washington, West Virginia, is located in Wood County, where 97 percent of the population identify as white and 15 percent live below the poverty level, according to EPA data. Twenty-nine percent of residents within three miles of the Chemours plant are considered low-income, EPA data show.
Chemours and DuPont, the previous owner of the Washington Works facility, agreed in 2017 to pay $670 million to settle more than 3,000 lawsuits in West Virginia and Ohio, by residents who said they were sickened by drinking water contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) released from the Washington facility.
Chemours already destroys more than half of its waste HFC-23 from the Louisville Works at the Washington facility, Sueta has said. The gas is compressed into liquid form and transported by rail car to the facility where it is incinerated, according to documents obtained from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
Emissions from the incinerator include particulate matter, heavy metals, including lead, cadmium and mercury, and dioxins and furans, state records show. Emissions were within levels permitted by the state, according to an annual report submitted by Chemours to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection in May.
Lead, mercury and dioxins are considered persistent bioaccumulative toxic substances by the EPA.
Chemours and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection did not immediately respond to questions from Inside Climate News about emissions from the Washington Works incinerator and whether the heavy metals and other toxins resulted from HFC-23 destruction or from the incineration of other pollutants at the facility.
It remains unclear whether the volume of toxins released from the incinerator will increase if Chemours begins incinerating more HFC-23 at the Washington facility or what, if any, impact current releases pose to nearby residents.
In an interview, Hamilton, of the Louisville air pollution control agency, said the district’s concern about emissions from the destruction of HFC-23 would be for any community where an incinerator is located, not just Louisville.
Reducing HFC-23 emissions in the United States represents a relatively small part of the global challenge, with two-thirds of global HCFC-22 production, the primary source of HFC-23, occuring in China. As of Sept. 15, chemical plants in the country were required to eliminate virtually all HFC-23 emissions as part of the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol.
The Montreal Protocol was negotiated in the 1980s to address the ozone hole in the atmosphere by phasing out the production of ozone-depleting chemicals. The Kigali Amendment was added to the Protocol in 2016 to phase down the production and use of HFCs, to help address climate change. The United States has not ratified the Kigali Amendment, but last week’s HFC regulation brings the United States into compliance with the agreement.
An Inside Climate News investigation published last week found that as many as 13 HCFC-22 production facilities in China may not have been destroying their waste HFC-23 in recent years, despite government policies requiring them to do so. Without strong enforcement and verification, experts said that it would be difficult to monitor their compliance.