US EPA raises environmental justice concerns about permit for 'chips to energy' plant in Youngstown
21 News has reported in depth a new conversion technology coming to downtown Youngstown, as a company called SOBE Thermal Energy Systems plans to convert tire chips into energy.
Another development has come to light in a letter sent by U.S. EPA Region 5, dated September 11th.
The U.S. EPA wrote that it "has determined that the draft permitting action raises potential environmental justice concerns."
The federal agency recommends the Ohio EPA consider modifications before issuing a final permit to SOBE, citing the permitting action "may raise civil rights concerns" based on "environmental conditions already facing this community," pointing out Youngstown's demographics.
"Data from EPA’s environmental justice screening tool, 'EJScreen,' illustrate the severity of pollution and health impacts facing the community living in proximity to the SOBE site. The neighborhoods around the facility have some of the highest levels in the state for many environmental justice indexes reported by EJScreen. EJScreen is a useful first step in understanding communities that may have environmental justice concerns," the letter said.
"It means there are people of low income and people of color living in a highly polluted area," Dr. Neil Carman, a former Texas state air pollution control field investigator said, "[U.S.] EPA is raising significant public health issues and environmental justice issues in this area."
According to the U.S. EPA's letter, "...values for 10 of the 13 environmental justice indexes for the area surrounding the facility exceed the 80th percentile in the state. The environmental justice indexes include ozone, diesel particulate matter, air toxics cancer risk, traffic proximity, lead paint, Superfund site proximity, Risk Management Program (RMP) facility proximity, hazardous waste proximity, underground storage tanks, and wastewater discharge. The population living in the area around the facility is significantly comprised of people of color, linguistically isolated households (Spanish language), those with low income, those with less than a high school education, and a with high unemployment rate."
Carman said in a nutshell, the U.S. EPA letter is asking that the Ohio EPA strengthen SOBE's permit requirements and enforcement, by including heightened testing, monitoring and additional tools in place to control any potentially toxic chemicals in SOBE's pyrolysis process, as well as transparency of data generated by SOBE to comply with the permit, made publically available on an "easily accessible website."
Region 5 also recommends Ohio EPA "conduct a more thorough environmental justice analysis of appropriate scope to inform the permitting decision. In addition to the EJScreen analysis already conducted, the analysis should include an evaluation of existing environmental, demographic, and public health data about the community. The analysis should evaluate the potential effects that the permitting action will have on the community, and the degree to which these effects will be disproportionate and adverse."
"This is very critical," Carman said, "What EPA has proposed to improve the permit, so I expect the permit will be modified, amended."
The Ohio EPA said it is "reviewing U.S. EPA's comments and will be responding to the items that the federal agency identified."
SOBE's CEO David Ferro said his "team will be working with Ohio EPA for appropriate response."
U.S. EPA said its agency "acknowledges the work OEPA has already undertaken on this permitting action, including
providing enhanced opportunities for public participation by putting the draft minor source permit on public notice, holding a public hearing on August 10, 2023, and mailing informational postcards to residents of the affected community, among other outreach efforts, which are generally not required for this type of permit. EPA also acknowledges OEPA’s willingness to engage in early, ongoing conversations with EPA about this project that will result in changes to the permit."