The Myth of Safe Plastics Persists, Despite Risk of Disasters Like East Palestine

The vinyl lobby has poured millions of dollars over the years into convincing lawmakers that PVC plastic is safe and sustainable.

Black smoke billows into the sky after an explosion and fire at the Formosa Plastics plant at Point Comfort, Texas, on Oct. 6, 2005. Photo: Steve Ueckert/Houston Chronicle via AP

Roughly 17 miles west of East Palestine, Ohio, the Columbiana County Humane Society has been fielding a rush of calls. Residents have reported chickens dying, cats coughing, and lethargic dogs throwing up. Some animals have discolored feces; others are unable to use their hind legs. The humane society typically deals with cases of abandonment and neglect, but executive director and kennel manager Teresa McGuire said they’ve now sent adoptable animals to other facilities to make room for East Palestine pets.

“We’ve been taking people’s information and compiling a list,” said McGuire. “We’re going to take it to Norfolk Southern to try to get them to assist with veterinary costs.”

The list will be one of several requests for compensation made by East Palestine residents to Norfolk Southern after one of its trains derailed on February 3, releasing hazardous chemicals and igniting a large blaze. Fearing an explosion, officials ordered residents to evacuate and conducted a controlled burn of the cars’ spilled contents, which included a toxic chemical called vinyl chloride. Five days later, residents were permitted to return home. But as reports have mounted of mysterious symptoms afflicting both humans and pets, and new information has surfaced about previously unreported toxic chemicals detected at the crash site, East Palestine residents are wondering if there’s still cause for concern.

A prime worry is the train’s release of vinyl chloride. The chemical — which is primarily used to make a plastic called polyvinyl chloride, or PVC — is classified as a Group A human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency and releases even more toxins when burned. PVC is commonly found in many products, including water pipes, medical devices, and vinyl flooring and siding. The environmental and health effects associated with the plastic’s production are well documented. The process exposes workers and surrounding communities not only to vinyl chloride, but also to asbestos and the industrial “forever chemicals” known as PFAS. What’s more, PVC is made with fossil fuels extracted from hydrofracking sites, which unleash enormous amounts of greenhouse gases that fuel the climate crisis.

Despite these risks, global PVC usage is on an uptick, and its market is projected to grow. While the latest disaster has brought renewed attention to the dangers of vinyl chloride, the incident is but one symptom of a troubling larger trend — one that’s been abetted by industry groups like the Vinyl Institute, which has poured millions of dollars into convincing the public, with the help of Democratic and Republican lobbyists alike, that PVC is safe and sustainable.

Deadly Fires and Damaging Pollution

The Vinyl Institute has long been a powerful force in Washington, D.C., but its dealings are rarely scrutinized. Founded in 1982, the group describes itself as “the voice for the PVC/vinyl industry” and represents vinyl, vinyl chloride monomer, and vinyl additive manufacturers, with an industry valuation of $54 billion. Its roster of members includes four petrochemical giants with disturbing safety records: Formosa Plastics, Westlake, Shintech Inc., and OxyVinyls, an affiliate of Occidental Petroleum’s OxyChem subsidiary.

Both Formosa and Westlake have seen multiple fires and explosions at facilities where chemicals for PVC are manufactured. In 2004, five workers suffered fatal injuries when vinyl chloride caused a massive blast at a Formosa PVC plant in Illinois; other flammable chemicals caused similar events in Point Comfort, Texas, in 2005 and 2013. Westlake experienced two explosions within five months at its Louisiana plants, injuring at least 29 workers total in September 2021 and January 2022. Shintech, a subsidiary of Shin-Etsu Chemical Co. and the world’s largest PVC producer, made local headlines in 2011 when two of its workers died after being overcome by an undetermined chemical at the company’s vinyl chloride plant in Plaquemine, Louisiana.

All four companies have reached settlements in cases brought by the federal government under the Clean Air Act. According to data from the nonprofit watchdog Good Jobs First, Formosa, Westlake, Shintech, and OxyVinyls have been cited a collective 245 times for safety and environmental violations since 2000, totaling a whopping $50,414,804 in fines. These fines include penalties from the Federal Railroad Administration for violations of hazardous materials transportation laws, an issue at the heart of the East Palestine disaster.

When reached for comment, a Westlake spokesperson referred The Intercept to a June 2022 press release on the company’s latest settlement. “Westlake’s commitment to safety is fundamental to the company’s values, and that commitment is to both our employees and to the communities in which we operate,” stated the release. Shintech and OxyVinyls did not respond to requests for comment.

The companies have also faced civil lawsuits, such as in 2019, when a judge deemed Formosa a “serial offender” and found its Point Comfort plant in “enormous” violation of state-issued permits and federal clean water laws. The company agreed to pay $50 million for its unlawful discharge of billions of plastic pellets into Lavaca Bay, making it the largest Clean Water Act settlement filed by private citizens. “At Formosa we firmly believe that economic development and environmental protection follow the same path and are the way that business must be conducted. Over the past several years, we have been integrating the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into our company culture and we will continue along that path,” said Fred Neske, Formosa’s executive director of environment, safety, and communications, in a statement.

These incidents might come as a surprise to anyone who reads the Vinyl Institute’s website, which describes the vinyl industry as one with “a commitment to sustainability and a track record of continuous improvement.”


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“Certainly, PVC is not sustainable,” said Dr. Jimena Díaz Leiva, science director at the Center for Environmental Health. “It’s a plastic that generates an enormous amount of greenhouse gas emissions and requires the use of very many toxic chemicals in its manufacture. I think any claims of sustainability are really misleading.”

Promoting and Defending

The vinyl lobby has poured millions of dollars over the years into convincing lawmakers otherwise. One of the Vinyl Institute’s stated priorities is to “promote and defend the image and reputation of vinyl and the industry from those who make false claims and disparage our products in the public discourse.” To accomplish this, the group spent $540,000 last year — its highest spend on record, up from $336,000 just two years ago.

A number of firms have been employed to assist with these efforts. In 2019, the group brought on the legal outfit Hogan Lovells, whose lobbyists include Ivan Zapien, former chief of staff to New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez and former director of outreach for the House Democratic Caucus. Zapien’s Hogan Lovells biography boasts of his “deep networks across both House and Senate Democrats.” At the Vinyl Institute’s 2020 Vinyl360 conference, these networks were on full display: The event featured a conversation with Menendez’s then-chief of staff Fred Turner.

The Vinyl Institute added theGROUP to its cadre of influence peddlers in 2021. Since then, disclosures show that lobbyists Jorge Aguilar, Sudafi Henry, and Kwabena Nsiah have “monitored proposals relating to the manufacturing, production and taxation of products made with polyvinyl chloride.” All three have deep ties to the Democratic Party’s establishment. Aguilar worked for Rep. Nancy Pelosi for nearly a decade, including as executive director of her campaign for Congress, and served on campaigns for conservative anti-abortion Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar and former President Barack Obama. Henry and Nsiah are both connected to President Joe Biden; Henry served as his director of legislative affairs from 2009 to 2017 and Nsiah as the chief of staff to senior Biden adviser Cedric Richmond from 2019 to 2021. Nsiah has also worked as a policy adviser to the House Democratic Caucus, a senior adviser to the congressional Joint Economic Committee, and as an aide to former Rep. Xavier Becerra, now Biden’s secretary of health and human services. Politico has described theGROUP as one of the “fastest-growing, Democrat-heavy firms,” noting that the firm’s annual lobbying revenues “more than doubled from $3.6 million in 2020 to $7.5 million in 2021.” Hogan Lovells and theGROUP did not respond to requests for comment.

The Vinyl Institute’s lobbyists are not limited to Democrats. Its ranks include Stuart Jolly, the former national field director for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, who worked with the industry group from 2017 to 2020. Jolly has long been active in conservative politics, including helping launch a Koch-funded political advocacy group called Americans for Prosperity and serving as the political director of one of the leading super PACs behind Trump’s 2020 campaign. During the same time as his efforts with the Vinyl Institute, he was subcontracted as a D.C. lobbyist by the government of Qatar.

“They are some of the best people that I’ve had an opportunity to work with,” said Jolly, when asked about the Vinyl Institute. “They love the environment like everybody else.”

Leaching and Breaching

The lobbyists work in support of the Vinyl Institute’s policy aims, which include pressuring Congress to require “open competition” in designing and bidding on water infrastructure, in order to ensure that PVC pipes are included in considerations. Critics have argued that the phrase “open competition” is misleading, as most states do not prohibit plastic water pipes. A 2017 New York Times story noted, “Opponents of the industry-backed bills, including many municipal engineers, say they are a thinly veiled effort by the plastics industry to muscle aside traditional pipe suppliers.”

Bluefield Research predicts that 80 percent of domestic water pipes will be made of plastic by 2030, despite studies suggesting that plastic pipes can leach chemicals into the water supply and that gasoline and other pollutants in soil and groundwater can breach the pipes’ walls. Additionally, Leiva, of the Center for Environmental Health, noted that as climate change intensifies, so does the risk of wildfires around urban areas, which can melt plastic pipes. “This can release a lot of toxic chemicals, things like dioxins, which are really, really potent toxics.”

In May 2019, more than 50 leaders in the vinyl industry convened in Washington to ask Congress to co-sponsor the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act, which proposed an increase in federal funding for water infrastructure, while also including carveouts for open competition. In a news blurb on the lobby group’s site, Dick Heinle, chair of the Vinyl Institute and general manager of the vinyl division of Formosa Plastics, is quoted as saying, “It is critically important that members of Congress hear directly from the vinyl industry before they vote on legislation like infrastructure, trade, and open competition. Our meetings in D.C. made a difference in growing more support for the industry.” The bill has not yet been signed into law.

The group has mobilized against efforts to ban toxic chemicals and decrease plastic reliance, including opposing the MICRO Plastics Act of 2020 and the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2021. The vinyl industry also fought the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act, which proposes phasing out the “manufacturing, processing, use and commercial distribution of all six types of asbestos” over two years. At a hearing in June 2022, vinyl representatives argued against the asbestos ban, claiming it would “potentially create a major public health crisis in the availability of drinking water.”

In response to a request for comment, the Vinyl Institute’s vice president of marketing and communications, Susan Wade, stated that the group “supports an open bidding process because it allows for transparency and increased competition where all water pipe material options can bid.” Wade added that the Vinyl Institute opposes the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act “because, if passed, plastic production will increase overseas in countries that have occupational safety and health regulations and environmental protection laws that are commonly less stringent than the regulations in the United States.”

Disclosures show the group’s lobbyists discussing the legislation and regulation of polyvinyl chloride with lawmakers and advocating for the weakening of the EPA’s Environmentally Preferable Purchasing program. The EPP encourages governments to purchase products determined to have fewer negative effects on human health and the environment, which, perhaps tellingly, the vinyl industry claims harms its ability to thrive.

Regulations concerning polyvinyl chloride particularly impact low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, where most PVC manufacturing plants are located. In a brief on vinyl chloride, the Natural Resources Defense Council called “exposure to this toxic chemical not only an issue of health and the environment, but also an issue of environmental justice.”

“It feels like an inevitability that we’ll have more disasters like East Palestine, given the growing dependence on and production of plastics and the lack of oversight.”

But thanks to strong congressional allies, the PVC industry isn’t slowing down. All four of the Vinyl Institute’s full members have announced multimillion– or billion-dollar expansions to their PVC production capabilities in recent years. Next month, vinyl manufacturers from across the country will attend the Vinyl Institute’s annual Congressional Fly-in in D.C. As fly-in guests attend meetings at the Hogan Lovells office and chat with members of Congress at the Capitol Hill Club, residents of East Palestine will likely still be rebuilding after the vinyl chloride spill, attending health checkups, and seeking guidance on how to keep themselves safe.

“It feels like an inevitability that we’ll have more disasters like East Palestine, given the growing dependence on and production of plastics and the lack of oversight,” said Leiva. “It’s really unfortunate that PVC is still in the conversation knowing what we know about its toxicity. I don’t think that it has any place in our world.”

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