Chemical plant pollution has ‘elevated’ cancer risk in a West Kentucky city, study says

Federal, state officials will hold a public meeting Feb. 13 in Calvert City

By: - January 29, 2024 5:50 am

Air monitoring site near the Calvert City Industrial Complex. (U.S. EPA)

“Toxic air pollution,” largely from a single chemical manufacturer, is elevating the risk of cancer for the approximately 2,500 residents of Calvert City in West Kentucky, state and federal environmental officials are warning. 

A study, conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with three air monitors put in place by the Kentucky Division of Air Quality (KDAQ) in the Marshall County community, found “elevated” levels of gasses known as volatile organic compounds, specifically vinyl chloride and ethylene dichloride (EDC).

EDC is used to make the chemical vinyl chloride, which is then often used to make polyvinyl chloride piping and other materials, commonly known as PVC. The EPA considers EDC to be a “probable human carcinogen” that can also potentially affect the liver and kidneys. Vinyl chloride is a carcinogen that can cause liver damage in humans. 

Westlake Vinyls, Inc., which manufactures vinyl chloride by heating up EDC, emitted 96% of all EDC emissions in Calvert City, according to a 2020 federal emissions inventory

Westlake’s plant in Calvert City accounted for the largest single source of EDC emissions in the entire country, according to the inventory, which showed Westlake Vinyls, Inc. emitting more than 36 tons of EDC, nearly double the next highest emitting plant in Louisiana. The EDC emissions from Westlake Vinyls Inc. dwarfed the next highest EDC emitter in Calvert City in 2020, which emitted about 1.7 tons of EDC. 

John Mura, a spokesperson for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, in a statement said state environmental protection officials are “in the process of working with local officials, the EPA and with Westlake Vinyls, Inc., which is believed to be the source of the emissions, on short-and long-term strategies to reduce EDC emissions from the facility.”

Mura said levels of some volatile organic compounds, including EDC, were detected “above the health threshold used by the state of Kentucky to determine if corrective action is needed.”

The EPA and the KDAQ plan to hold a public meeting at 6 p.m. CT on Tuesday, Feb. 13, at the Calvert City branch of the Marshall County Public Library to provide the public with more information about the study, including offering a remote attendance option. 

A spokesperson for the Westlake Corporation, the parent company of Westlake Vinyls, Inc., in a statement said the company had “engaged a consultant” to analyze the EPA’s study data and provide recommendations, and the company was committed to working with state and federal officials.

Data reportedly collected for years on air quality

The study, which used data collected from the monitors between October 2020 and December 2021, found the estimated cumulative chronic cancer risk over a 70-year lifespan at the three air monitor sites varied. 

But the estimated cancer risk at all three monitoring sites from EDC in the air was well above the EPA’s goal to limit cumulative cancer risk to no higher than 1 person per 1 million people. The estimated cancer risk at one monitoring site was more than ten times the upper limit the EPA sets for acceptable cancer risk, which is 100 persons per 1 million people.

The EPA estimated health risks associated with emissions of volatile organic compounds at each of three Calvert City monitoring sites and a background site. (U.S. EPA)

The cumulative cancer risk was calculated to be: 

  • 60 persons per 1 million people at a monitor set up at Calvert City Elementary School, a little less than a mile from the city’s industrial complex including chemical plants.
  • 100 persons per 1 million people at a monitor set up along Johnson-Riley Road, about 200 meters away from the city’s industrial complex including chemical plants
  • 1,000 persons per 1  million people at a monitor set up next to Westlake Vinyls, Inc.

Before the EPA study was conducted, the federal agency had collected air monitoring data from sites around Calvert City, a chemical manufacturing hub, dating back to 2011 that showed “potentially elevated cancer risks and non-cancer hazards” primarily driven by detected EDC and vinyl chloride in the air. 

The nonprofit, nationwide investigative newsroom ProPublica in May 2022 reported on how state officials started monitoring the air around Calvert City in the mid-2000s, with monitor data showing levels of EDC that violated the EPA’s long-term cancer risk guidelines for more than a decade afterwards. That air quality data was logged by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet officials and uploaded to a federal database, according to the newsroom.

Gene Colburn

State regulators weren’t able to utilize the past data collected to use for further action, according to ProPublica, because the state failed to develop a quality assurance plan for the data, ensuring that the data collected was reliable and accurate, until 2020. ProPublica reported the EPA then set up new air monitors around the city once such a plan was in place. 

Gene Colburn, the mayor of Calvert City, said he wasn’t aware of the air emissions concerns connected to Westlake Vinyl until the ProPublica report was published in 2022. 

Colburn, who works for another Calvert City chemical manufacturer Estron Chemical, said a significant number of people in the city are employed by the chemical industry. But that employment doesn’t mean community members are going to give “the chemical industry a bye, that you’re going to accept risk to your family.” 

“The ambient air quality in the area has to be in compliance with national standards,” Colburn said. “Just because somebody runs a chemical plant a mile from your house doesn’t mean that you need to be accepting an unhealthy environment.” 

“Calvert City will have to deal with the reputation and then the fallout of this,” he said. 

The town sits on Kentucky Lake and the Tennessee River 13 miles from the river’s confluence with the Ohio River.

Potential next steps

Moving forward from the study, the EPA pointed to a proposed rule under consideration, which could go into effect by late March, that aims to regulate volatile organic compounds including EDC. 

The proposed rule would require Westlake Vinyls, Inc. and other volatile organic compound polluters to monitor for emissions at their property boundaries, known as fenceline monitoring, along with requiring companies to “make repairs” if emissions levels are higher than a specific “action level.” 

Byron Gary, an attorney with the environmental advocacy and legal organization Kentucky Resources Council, said Westlake Vinyls, Inc. is already reporting fenceline monitoring data for the carcinogenic chemical benzene under a 2022 consent decree with the federal government to settle allegations the company violated the Clean Air Act and state air pollution control laws. 

The EPA’s proposed rule for volatile organic compounds, Gary said, would add EDC to pollutants subject to fenceline monitoring. 

The EPA’s study says state and federal officials would work to “explore voluntary actions” that Westlake Vinyls, Inc. and other Calvert City plants could take to reduce EDC emissions.

Lori Barrett, the public relations coordinator at Marshall County Schools, said an EPA official had reached out to the principal of Calvert City Elementary School, Kendra Glenn, to let the principal know that study was being published. 

Barrett said the principal was told by the EPA official that “they would be working with Westlake for long-term solutions.” 

She said the EPA official told the principal that they also wanted to help the school by possibly using “air filters and air purification.”

This story was updated with a statement from the Westlake Corporation.


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Liam Niemeyer
Liam Niemeyer

Liam covers government and policy in Kentucky and its impacts throughout the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Lantern. He most recently spent four years reporting award-winning stories for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.