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Laredoans expressed his displeasure at an Environmental Protection Agency meeting at TAMIU

The long-awaited meeting between Laredo Air Coalition members, city officials, local residents and representatives of the US Environmental Protection Agency was held at TAMIU on Friday. But despite the opportunity to comment on the rules and past history, depending on who is interviewed, the meeting’s effectiveness remained in question.

The audience included members of the coalition and the Rio Grande International Study Center. And some of them who had studied ethylene oxide emissions were less than pleased with the EPA’s perceived slow progress in tackling local emissions following reports suggesting that some Laredo residents had much more likely to get cancer.

The problems surrounding the EtO discussions apparently stem from many obstacles. According to Laredo’s Director of Health, Dr. Richard Chamberlain, when a cancer evaluation was requested from the Texas State Department of Health Services, there was an uphill struggle for information. Additionally, the city requested information on several different cancers, but the state only provided four.

Chamberlain said that based on census data in the Midwest sterilization area, not all four cancers were abnormal. They did, however, include lymphoma cancer which was statistically significantly higher than the state average. Chamberlain added that going forward, the city will continue the same cancer assessment on a three-year basis indefinitely as a new health department protocol.

As Laredo continues its decades-long struggles as a medically underserved community, the cancer risk factor regarding EtO has been the most concerning issue within the coalition and the RGISC. The EPA has previously classified EtO as a human carcinogen and states that scientific evidence in humans indicates that exposure to EtO over many years increases the risk of white blood cell cancers, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, myeloma and lymphocytic leukemia.

Carla Ortiz, the mother of a 13-year-old child who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2019, said the cause of her daughter’s cancer was unknown; there was no family history of the disease.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief medical officer Dr. Michelle Zeager noted on Friday that EtO cannot be labeled as the definitive cause of cancers such as these due to the disease’s many complications.

Ortiz, however, said she was sure it was the EtO emissions.

“My daughter almost died,” Ortiz said. “We had been in intensive care for almost three months and they didn’t want to give him a chance. We had to drive to Corpus because there is no children’s hospital here. So we had to suffer day and night, and multiple operations after operations.

When quantifying risk factors, the EPA said there are three risk factors to consider: residential proximity, amount of emissions released, and length of time a person is exposed.

As EPA officials said, the agency only manages emissions and cannot ban or stop them outright. Local residents shared that they were concerned about the current and long-term effects EtO could cause under the ongoing underserved designation, especially after a difficult time under pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ortiz added that after the diagnosis, she and her husband struggled to effectively serve their daughter, losing their jobs and their home in order to properly care for her, all in the midst of COVID-19. In the midst of this, the difficulty surrounding the discussion became clear as the panel could only share their sympathies but not immediate solutions.

“Right now my daughter – luckily she’s in remission,” the troubled mother said to the sound of applause. “My daughter is very brave. She said to me, ‘I’m going to get there. I’m going to do a lot of things that they told me I couldn’t do. She got her hip replaced, this month she got her shoulder replaced, and it’s all due to cancer.

RGISC Director of Climate Science and Policy, Sheila Cerna, said the purpose of the EPA meeting was for the agency itself to inform the community of proposed rules targeting EtO emissions. She believed the meeting was an opportunity to better inform community members as well as give feedback towards a stricter rule on sterilizer emissions.

The first rule will focus on EtO and its acceptable emissions, Midwest Sterilization’s compliance with the rule, and actions to reduce EtO emissions within the community. This will be done for every community living with a sterilization facility, as there are 100 commercial sterilizers nationwide that use EtO, 23 of which — including Laredo — have been designated as higher risk by the EPA.

The second rule will focus on sterilization facilities on their use of EtO, how workers apply and handle EtO, and the protections they will need when handling. David Garcia, director of the EPA’s air and radiation division, said both rules will be offered this coming year; the agency will draft the language and it will be shared with communities for input at public hearings.

However, during the Q&A portion of the meeting, tensions and frustrations grew as members of the public felt powerless over the EPA’s lack of authority due to federal bureaucracy and the established timeline. by the agency regarding the implementation of the new rules. Those frustrations were evident when EPA Air and Radiation Division Director David Garcia said that even if the new rules were passed, sterilization companies would still have three years to comply, prompting boos and moans from the audience.

Another point of contention was when EPA officials explained how Midwest Sterilization Corporation told them they would install new emissions control systems before the rules. RGISC Executive Director Tricia Cortez disputed the claims, adding that the community had heard it before, calling it the “greatest hit record”.

“I think it’s very hard to trust what they’ve told you without verifying what they’re telling you,” Cortez said.

Echoing that sentiment, Cerna said a previous TCEQ investigation she was involved in has now led her to have little to no confidence in proper Midwest or TCEQ reporting. She criticized the three-year delay for sterilization companies to comply with the new rule. Meanwhile, she thinks the community of Laredo needs air monitoring equipment, funded by the EPA, to collect data independently.

She cited several avenues of funding, such as reaching out to county, city and school districts to pay for freelance air monitors. She pleaded with the EPA to help aid the coalition and the city by funding or providing air monitors in the area, adding that the three years would also hamper implementation of the monitors.

“One last thing: I would like to see full transparency from the Midwest and the EPA. Our demands include access to plant records, like math balance sheets and a risk management plan,” he said. she demanded, as EPA officials noted the comments.

Midwest Sterilization Corporation issued a statement after the meeting.

“Midwest takes its regulatory compliance seriously,” the statement said. “We are currently in compliance with all federal and state emission control requirements and expect to remain in compliance, including when the new regulations are enacted. EtO is an important tool to protect the health of patients. Midwest is taking all necessary steps to ensure the safety of patients across the country and local residents. Additionally, we are currently working on additional emission control measures ahead of the new EPA regulatory timeline.

According to Madeline Beal, senior EPA risk communications adviser, she acknowledged the requests, but admitted that there is no technology available to safely and reliably monitor EtO emissions. Modeling is the preferred method to monitor the problem, recognizing the trust issues the community has with the facility and agencies.

Ultimately, Laredo residents will have to wait and see if their comments and demands are implemented within EPA rules later this year. Members of the public were told that more public hearings would be available during the process, but laid the groundwork for what the proposed rules would cover.

Garcia added that there would be punitive consequences for sterilization facilities that don’t follow the new rules, but details weren’t available because there were no EPA enforcement officials in attendance. the meeting.

The lack of detail also angered audience members who feared lenient penalties would allow companies to continue disregarding the rules. However, Garcia said the penalties would not be lenient and would result in changes.