EPA faces lawsuit as inaction exposes millions to carcinogenic ethylene oxide every day

US EPA plaque
The US Environmental Protection Agency faces a lawsuit for inaction that exposes millions to cancer-causing ethylene oxide every day. [Image: Nojustice-Canva]

Today, Earthjustice—on behalf of Clean Power Lake County and other environmental and health advocacy groups—sent a 60-day Notice of Intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the agency’s inaction to regulate harmful carcinogenic air emissions from ethylene oxide (EtO) facilities as the law required.

The Clean Air Act directs the EPA to review its EtO standards every eight years. However, the agency has repeatedly missed this deadline—first in 2014 and again in April 2022.

The EPA admits the chemical is 60 times more toxic than previously estimated and that facilities that emit EtO, including commercial sterilizers and chemical manufacturers, pose an elevated cancer risk to nearby communities. Children are particularly sensitive to ethylene oxide when exposed.

Ethylene oxide is a colorless, typically odorless, flammable gas used to sterilize medical equipment and in the production of chemicals needed for antifreeze, plastics, detergents, and adhesives. It is one of the most toxic air pollutants EPA regulates. This toxic chemical is a known carcinogen to humans, especially when inhaled.

Facilities that emit ethylene oxide are typically found in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, many already grappling with elevated toxic exposure and health risks from multiple forms of industrial pollution.

“EPA has delayed for too long to update sterilizer rule while communities suffer unnecessary toxic exposure and unacceptable cancer risks,” said Earthjustice attorney Marvin Brown. “Congress passed the Clean Air Act to protect communities from the harmful effects of air pollution, and tasked EPA with ensuring that industry emissions do not threaten public health. By failing to timely revise its sterilizer rule, EPA has left communities to fend for themselves against a deadly, cancer-causing chemical. We are calling on the EPA to finally remedy this injustice without further delay.”

As each day passes, ethylene oxide threatens the health of many communities that continue to wait on EPA to fulfill its legal obligations under the Clean Air Act. Today’s letter provides notice that community and environmental groups cannot wait any longer—and will sue EPA to compel the agency to enact stronger, science-based standards that are protective of public health.

“Excuse after excuse has led to death after death and EPA refuses to act. The agency waited more than eight years after the first deadline, and now missed a second deadline to properly regulate ethylene oxide, even as it recognized that the chemical was causing cancer to people in communities across the country,” said Raul Garcia, legislative director of Healthy Communities at Earthjustice. ”Our letter intends to compel long overdue protective action from EPA, but should also serve as reminder to state and local officials that their inaction is leaving people exposed to severe risk of cancer and other illnesses in the very communities they serve. Cancer-causing chemicals must be properly regulated at every level of government immediately.”

“The EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. They are failing my community and communities across the country with their inaction to regulate harmful air emissions from ethylene oxide facilities. It’s unacceptable that everyday community members have been forced to file this suit in order for the EPA to be accountable and update their standards as required by law. Our rights have been violated and the EPA must do its job,” said Celeste Flores, steering committee member with Clean Power Lake County.

Earthjustice filed the Notice of Intent on behalf of Rio Grande International Study Center, Clean Power Lake County, California Communities Against Toxics, Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Sierra Club.

CPLC, allies sue EPA for exempting half a billion tons of toxic coal ash from health protections

US Environmental Protection Agency building
The US Environmental Protection Agency faces a lawsuit for exempting at least half a billion tons of coal ash in nearly 300 landfills in 38 states from standards designed to protect people from cancer-causing chemicals. [Image: Skyhobo-Canva]

Clean Power Lake County and other environmental, civil rights, and community groups today filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in federal court for letting hundreds of toxic coal ash landfills off the hook from complying with important federal health and environmental protections.

Earthjustice mined databases buried in EPA archives and found that the agency exempted at least half a billion tons of coal ash in nearly 300 landfills in 38 states from standards designed to protect people from cancer-causing chemicals. The landfills are sited disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color (see map). It is enough coal ash to fill train cars that could go around the earth two times.

Plaintiffs’ Attorney Mychal Ozaeta from Earthjustice said, “Power plant records reveal that about half of the toxic coal ash waste in the US is entirely exempt from any federal health protections. This is outrageous. The coal power industry is poisoning drinking water sources and the air we breathe while causing global warming.”

When the EPA adopted the first-ever rules in 2015 for toxic ash generated when burning coal, the agency excluded coal ash landfills and waste piles that stopped receiving new waste before the law went into effect. It also didn’t cover landfills at power plants that had already stopped producing power.

On August 1, more than 100 organizations in dozens of states and Puerto Rico wrote to the EPA urging them to stop exempting these abandoned landfills filled with coal ash (which is also known as “coal combustion residuals” or “CCR”).

The EPA has noted that the risks to humans associated with exposure to coal ash include “cancer in the skin, liver, bladder and lungs,” “neurological and psychiatric effects,” “cardiovascular effects,” “damage to blood vessels,” and “anemia.”

The lawsuit says what we know about the extent of water contamination from coal ash “is just the tip of the iceberg.”

The suit describes an Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice study of industry data: “Groundwater contamination exceeding federal health-based standards was found at 76% of the regulated CCR [coal combustion residuals] landfills. Regulated landfills are newer and more likely to be lined than the older landfills EPA exempted from the CCR rule. Thus, the exempted inactive CCR landfills are likely to be releasing even higher levels of toxic contaminants.”

The lawsuit states, “Coal-fired power plants generate one of the largest toxic solid waste streams in the United States. In this voluminous waste stream are large quantities of heavy metals and metal compounds such as arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, lithium, mercury, molybdenum, radium, selenium, and thallium.”

Nonprofit legal organization Earthjustice filed the lawsuit in US District Court in Washington, DC, on behalf of plaintiffs Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (Tennessee), Indiana State Conference and LaPorte County Branch of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People, Hoosier Environmental Council (Indiana), Sierra Club, Clean Power Lake County (Illinois), and Environmental Integrity Project.

Among the hundreds of landfills the EPA has exempted from their protections is NRG Energy’s Waukegan Generating Station, where an unregulated coal ash fill has been contaminating groundwater since at least 2010.

“For years we have fought hard for our community to be protected, for our community to be respected and for our community to be seen,” said Dulce Ortiz, co-chair of Clean Power Lake County. “For starters, this can be done by ensuring the EPA protects our community by addressing the coal ash landfill that sits on our lakefront. Minority and economically disadvantaged communities are disproportionately burdened by pollution and the Waukegan community is no different. The EPA must do what it was intended to do, to protect our community residents and our environment.”

Sierra Club Attorney Bridget Lee said, “The continued storage of toxic coal ash in unlined landfills without groundwater monitoring flies in the face of EPA’s own science and risk assessments and threatens fenceline communities across the country. The agency must act now to close this dangerous loophole.”

According to the lawsuit, if the EPA had followed the law (the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act), “basic safeguards would be in place for inactive CCR landfills that would keep coal ash toxins out of our drinking water, air, rivers, lakes, and streams, and require remediation at the scores of sites already known to be contaminating water at dangerous levels.”

Additional resources
Related case documents and news

CPLC: Statement on EPA study that identifies 23 high-risk EtO facilities

Medical instruments being sterilized in an autoclave. sterilizer.
Steam sterilization, dry heat sterilization, chemical sterilization using gases like ethylene oxide, and radiation are among the most common methods used to properly sterilize a medical device. [Image: Robertprzybysz/Canva]

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released results of a study identifying 100 communities impacted by exposure to ethylene oxide (EtO) released from sterilizing facilities. The EPA named 23 high-risk ethylene oxide sterilizer facilities that have a cancer risk rate above EPA’s 100-in-a-million unacceptable risk rate. Waukegan was not among the named communities. This is great news for our community. We are grateful for this small, positive sign that our local sterilizing facility has followed through on its promise to Clean Power Lake County to install additional pollution controls.

We stand in solidarity with the named communities and urge the EPA to do more than simply engage communities about the dangers of EtO. It is essential that at-risk communities be supported through continuous fenceline monitoring for accurate emissions data. 

Moreover, we challenge the EPA to recognize that distribution and storage facilities also pose a potential risk for EtO emissions. They should be monitored as well so that all potential sources of exposure to EtO used for sterilization can be identified. 

Clean Power Lake County also recognizes that the study applies to a very specific industry. In Illinois, medical sterilization facilities are regulated by strict controls.

However, the communities of Waukegan and Gurnee are impacted by a less regulated source of EtO emissions—Vantage Specialty Chemical, which uses ethylene oxide in the manufacture of other products. This industry is currently exempt from many EPA regulations. We urge EPA to close those loopholes and undertake monitoring of the neighborhoods surrounding that facility as well. 

The EPA statement is a positive step in the fight to end EtO emissions. There are many more steps to take before all communities impacted by EtO exposure—especially those at greatest risk of negative health outcomes—can feel safe in their own homes. 

EPA must do more to hold corporate polluters responsible and require them to use the most effective emissions controls possible or develop new technologies that replace the use of EtO for sterilization. 

Read more about the EPA’s EtO risk assessments and list of high-risk communities. 

CPLC co-chair shares his environmental justice journey in inspiring coloring book

Eddie Flores poses with environmental coloring book.
CPLC co-chair Eddie Flores is excited to share his environmental justice journey in a new coloring book.

Until he started high school, Eddie Flores had no idea that dangers hid in plain sight in Waukegan—and especially along its lakefront.

As a high schooler, he got involved with environmental groups. And that’s when he found out his hometown had five Superfund sites and a coal-burning power plant. 

“Growing up, I was never really taught about the coal plant or our Superfund sites in school and feel like it is something that really needs to be taught,” Eddie said in his Clean Power Lake County bio. “I hope to connect people—especially youth—to this fight since we’re the ones that are going to be inheriting this planet.”

He has already begun connecting people to the fight for climate justice. This summer, he is sharing his story in Eddie’s Environmental Justice Journey, an environmental justice (EJ) coloring book.

The bilingual EJ coloring book is a collaborative effort by Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods, Clean Power Lake County (CPLC), and local artist Diana Nava.

The coloring book helps Lake County children understand how pollutants from lakefront industries affect them. It also shows how people can work together to bring about a better future for their community.

Complimentary coloring books will be available during a Meet and Greet event on Saturday, August 20. The free event runs from 6:30­ to 8:30 pm at Three Brothers Theatre in downtown Waukegan. Reserve your free ticket here.


CPLC: Our policy on political endorsements

Primary elections are underway in Illinois. Therefore, we would like to remind our supporters that Clean Power Lake County does not endorse candidates running for elected office and does not participate in political campaigns.

CPLC partners with several 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations—charitable, educational, and religious institutions—that are prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office, under the Internal Revenue Code.

At the same time, we believe that practicing participatory democracy is one of the main ways we can build sustainable, healthy communities in Lake County. We respect and appreciate every individual who helps strengthen civic engagement or otherwise engages in the democratic process.

Questions? Please contact us at cplc@cleanpowerlakecounty.org

CPLC: 2021 highlights

  • Clipping of Chicago Tribune front page
  • Volunteers in Zoom room
  • Volunteers with rainbow "Love Wins" sign
  • Youths with signs at Illinois statehouse
  • Volunteers with trash bags at park
  • Youths at desk in CPLC office
  • Governor Pritzker at Chicago lakefront
  • Dulce Ortiz of Clean Power Lake County
  • CPLC leaders at Chicago lakefront
  • Man with award at Brushwood Center
  • Dulce Ortiz on beach by coal plant

As we reflect on the events of 2021, we feel grateful for—and empowered by—our community and our shared vision to make our world a better place. Clean Power Lake County (CPLC) is proud to highlight some of our recent accomplishments.

February

  • February 7: CPLC co-chair Dulce Ortiz joined the Illinois Environmental Justice Commission as a voting member. The commission advises the Governor and state entities on environmental justice and related community issues.
  • February 8: Four members of CPLC’s steering committee joined a one-day hunger strike to protest the move of General Iron Industries’ metal shredding facility from Chicago’s affluent, predominantly white Lincoln Park neighborhood to Chicago’s predominantly Latino Southeast Side.

April

  • April 15: The Illinois Pollution Control Board adopted rules for closing more than 70 coal ash ponds across the state—including two on Waukegan’s lakefront. CPLC members worked hard to make this happen!
  • April 18: CPLC demanded that President Joe Biden’s administration address the Environmental Protection Agency’s failure to investigate ethylene oxide (EtO) polluters in Lake County—or to warn residents about the carcinogen.

May

  • May 17: “Transparency is key,” said CPLC co-chair Celeste Flores in a Chicago Tribune front-page story about Medline’s failure to report toxic ethylene oxide emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • May 24: CPLC organized one of several phone banking events supporting the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA).

June

  • June 2: CPLC participated in the Waukegan Pride Drive for the second consecutive year to help celebrate LGBTQ Pride Month. 
  • June 14: CPLC and allies told the Chicago Tribune that toxic waste left behind by coal-fired power plants could endanger drinking water for years to come.
  • June 15: CPLC volunteers journeyed to Springfield to advocate for passage of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s comprehensive, equitable climate bill.
  • June 17: NRG announced plans to close the coal-fired power plant in Waukegan. “Hundreds of volunteers, thousands of hours, helped make this day a reality,” said CPLC co-chair Dulce Ortiz. 

July

August 

  • August 2: Big win! After meeting with CPLC, the Environmental Protection Agency decided to revise rules for how coal-fired power plants—including the one in Waukegan—can dispose of contaminated wastewater.
  • August 7: CPLC partnered with Illinois Sen. Adrianne Johnson to organize a clean-up at North Chicago’s Foss Park. 

September 

October

  • October 2: CPLC steering committee member Eddie Flores received the Environmental Youth Leadership Award from Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods. 

December 

  • December 5: CPLC’s fight for clean air, clean water, and healthy soil in Waukegan was the subject of the front-page story in the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune. CPLC co-chair Dulce Ortiz and steering committee members Eddie Flores and Karen Long MacLeod were interviewed.
  • December 15-16: CPLC volunteers asked dozens of questions during Midwest Generation’s public meetings on proposed plans to close coal ash ponds on the Waukegan lakefront.  

2022 vision 

This year, we feel all the more energized to accomplish our mission: ensuring clean air, clean water, and healthy soil for every Lake County community member and achieving the self-determination of those disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution.

Priorities for 2022: 

  • Continue pursuing a just transition for the Waukegan coal plant. This means ensuring that coal ash is removed so it cannot contaminate Lake Michigan, the source of drinking water for 6 million people in four states. It also means ensuring proper notification and public engagement if and when the company plans any demolition at the site. 
  • Monitoring efforts to implement the Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act (signed into law in 2019) to hold coal plant owners accountable for clean-ups.
  • Serving in key working groups to ensure effective implementation of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (signed into law in 2021).

CPLC: New Illinois Law Will Help Build Equitable Clean Energy Future

Governor Pritzker at Chicago lakefront
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the historic Climate and Equitable Jobs Act. [Photo courtesy of Celeste Flores]

Illinois’ Climate and Equitable Jobs Act—designed to build an equitable clean energy future for Illinoisans—is now the law of our land.

Clean Power Lake County is proud to have joined fellow members of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition as well as Illinois House and Senate leaders in Chicago on Sept. 15 to see Gov. J.B. Pritzker sign the sweeping bill into law.

The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act combines appropriate pollution regulations with equity protections to help establish responsible transition timelines for fossil fuel plants like the one on Waukegan’s lakefront. These equity protections are essential to prevent abrupt retirement announcements that leave no room for planning and force communities to fend for themselves against profit-focused corporate giants. 

Clean Power Lake County has been fighting for nearly a decade to end toxic pollution from the coal-fired power plant in our front yard.

Waukegan deserves a just transition from coal to a clean energy future. And now we will get it: The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act invests $41 million per year in former fossil fuel communities and workers. It will replace lost property taxes, help workers with training, and support equity-focused workforce programs to help communities like ours become part of our clean energy future.

Dulce Ortiz of Clean Power Lake County

For far too long, Black and Brown lives have been sacrificed for the sake of corporate profits. The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act finally stops putting the profits of inefficient and dirty fossil fuels over the health and safety of our Black and Brown sisters and brothers. 

This act addresses the historic inequities of pollution, creates jobs in the communities that need them the most, and invests in projects critical to our communities. Most importantly, we will leave a better community, a better world for our many generations to come, a healthy and clean energy future beyond coal.

—Dulce Ortiz, co-chair of Clean Power Lake County

CPLC Celebrates LGBTQ Pride Month With Waukegan PrideDrive

Car decorated for Waukegan Pride Drive
This year, Clean Power Lake County will make its second appearance in Waukegan’s PrideDrive. In 2020, CPLC and Faith in Place volunteers collaborated on entries. [Image: courtesy Celeste Flores]

As a community organization committed to justice for all people, Clean Power Lake County is pleased to celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Pride Month. We gratefully acknowledge the impact that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals have had on local, national, and international history.

To kick off Pride Month, we are excited to participate for the second year in Waukegan’s PrideDrive. Members of our steering committee will decorate a car to show solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.  

PrideDrive 2021 is Saturday, June 5, from 1 pm to 3 pm. Vehicles will roll out from 269 W. Clayton St., near Jack Benny Plaza in downtown Waukegan. For route information, visit the PrideDrive Facebook page. 

The celebration will continue with an after-party in front of Nightshade and Dark’s Pandemonium Brewing, 216 W. Clayton St. 

The Lake County Health Department (LCHD), Waukegan Main Street and the LGBTQ+ Center of Lake County will fill the streets with friends, fun and pride. 

This event will follow CDC, Illinois Department of Public Health and LCHD social distancing guidelines. 

Celebrate Earth Month: Do a DIY Clean-up by April 30

[Image: constantinopris/Canva]

Earth Month lasts another seven days. That’s plenty of time to make a planet-friendly difference close to home.    

In years past, Clean Power Lake County volunteers have gathered during Earth Month to clean up the beach. This year, with the pandemic continuing, we had to think of a safer way our volunteers could make a difference. Hence, a do-it-yourself clean-up! 

Our communities could certainly use a good clean-up right about now. Thanks to the pandemic, we’re seeing more trash than ever. People get more take-out food more often. Grocery stores don’t allow reusable shopping bags. Coffee shops don’t allow reusable cups. And face masks are scattered everywhere. 

So we encourage you to organize your own Earth Month clean-up with your pod! Clean-ups are super easy to do on your own. They also are a great way to see tangible results in a short amount of time. 

Please sign the Clean Power Lake County Neighborhood Clean-up Pledge now to clean up your neighborhood, a nearby park, or even the lakefront by April 30. 

Here are our best practices for organizing your clean-up:

  1. Keep an eye out during walks or bike rides for places nearby that look like they could use a clean-up.
  2. Recruit members of your pod to help with the clean-up and pick a good time to meet up. (Whether it’s 30 minutes or 3 hours, everything helps.)
  3. Grab trash bags and think about where the trash will go when you finish. If you don’t expect to pick up much, you can just throw the bags into your own trash bin. If you think you will collect more than your personal trash can handle, identify a place you can drop it off or ask your alderman for help arranging a pickup.
  4. Wear reflective or bright clothes, long pants, and closed-toe shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty. If you anticipate going off the trail or into an area with brush, first make sure you’re allowed to enter that area. (You don’t want to disturb a restoration in progress!). 
  5. Wear gloves. The thicker the better, so nothing can poke through. (Trust us, you don’t want to pick up trash with your bare hands.)
  6. Bring a speaker! Everything is more fun with music.

When you finish, tell us about your clean-up. We want to know how much trash you collected (by weight and/or number of bags). Even better, we’d love to see photos of your pod as the star in the effort to improve your environment for yourself, your friends, and neighbors.

CPLC: Statement on EPA’s Failure to Protect Lake County Residents From EtO

EPA map of cancer risk levels associated with ethylene oxide in Lake County, Illinois.
Residents of Lake County, Illinois, face elevated cancer risk levels due to ethylene oxide emissions. [Image: US EPA]

Political appointees in the Trump administration blocked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from investigating ethylene oxide (EtO) polluters and prevented staff from warning Lake County residents about the carcinogen, according to a new report issued by the inspector general for the EPA.  

Clean Power Lake County is deeply troubled to learn of yet another example of Trump’s EPA standing with polluters instead of communities. But we are not surprised. 

Although the EPA was aware of the dangers posed by EtO, it buried this information. EPA’s action put tens of thousands of disproportionately Black and brown Lake County community members in harm’s way. The EPA failed in its mission to protect human health and the natural environment by allowing corporations to continue jeopardizing the well-being of our already overburdened communities and exposing us to highly carcinogenic toxins. 

It should not be radical for us to demand a healthy living environment. 

We will hold the Biden administration to its promise to address these findings and demand continuous, independent, fenceline monitoring for EtO in every impacted community across the nation. 

We applaud the Biden administration for creating the Environmental Justice Advisory Council—and we remind council members that tailored action must follow for each EJ community. 

The EPA must provide the necessary support and proper communications to state EPAs and county health departments. This administration must hold the EPA accountable for communicating with local governments and EJ leaders; supporting state, county, and local priorities; and enforcing federal regulations. 

We look forward to continuing to work with Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin of Illinois—two of the four members of Congress who requested an investigation into EPA’s handling of ethylene oxide emissions—and all of our elected officials to hold the EPA accountable and to address the many EJ issues our community members face.

For more information: