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March 15, 2023Why environmental justice is a critical component of safe and sustainable chemistry

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By Bev Thorpe, Clean Production Action 

Recently I took part in a one-day roundtable to advance ‘Sustainable Chemistry in RD&D to Transform the Chemicals Industry.’ The focus was how to advance research, development and demonstration of sustainable chemistry and how the Department of Energy could play a role. This one-day event, held March 7, 2023 in Washington DC, was co-hosted by the Dept of Energy/Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Industrial Efficiency and Decarbonization Office and the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council. 

I was asked to open this panel by addressing why environmental justice (EJ) is a critical component of safe and sustainable chemistry.  The audience included executives of chemical industry start-ups and Department of Energy program officers. Were people in the room familiar with the term ‘environmental justice’ and the history of impacted communities? How much was chemical toxicity a focus among Department of Energy policy makers?  Not knowing the answers, I presented the following five points.

As the authors of the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform clearly state, “climate justice and environmental justice are the same“

The ‘justice’ part of both these terms uplifts the fact that disproportionate impacts are felt by some people more than others.

As the UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted: “Climate change is happening now and to all of us. No country or community is immune and as is always the case, the poor and vulnerable are the first to suffer and the worst hit.” 

The same is true for fenceline communities living next to chemical production and toxic waste sites. It is well documented that the people in Mossville, and St. James Parish located in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley have cancer rates far higher than the United States average. These predominantly Black communities are home to more than 150 refineries and petrochemical plants. Local community groups work tirelessly for a reduction in toxic emissions from these plants, while opposing the proposed permitting of new, plastic production facilities in the community.  

The convergence of climate justice and environmental justice is made clear by what happened after the landfall of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, in 2017.  

Oil refineries and chemical plants across the Texas Gulf Coast released more than 1 million pounds of dangerous air pollutants in the week following. Floating rooftops sank on oil storage tanks, chemical storage tanks overflowed with rainwater, and broken valves and shutdown procedures triggered flaring at refineries. This resulted in large releases of highly hazardous chemicals including benzene, 1,3-butadiene, hexane, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, toluene and xylene a week after the hurricane struck. Extreme weather events are exacerbated by climate change, we will see more of these scenarios occur, with nearby communities bearing the brunt of impacts. 

There is now a groundswell of work around climate and chemicals which is rapidly scaling into a common message of justice for all, safe work, and healthy communities.

As the signatories to the Climate Platform explain ‘This agenda will drive big and sustained government and private investments to curb carbon and toxic pollution; create diverse and inclusive economic opportunities; and address the legacy pollution that has burdened tribal communities, communities of color, and low-income communities.’  See more at

So what does this all mean for sustainable chemistry? 

Sustainable Chemistry – if rolled out well – will provide solutions for both the climate and chemical pollution crises and local communities will be integral to this success.   But this will only happen if decarbonization and detoxification go hand in hand.

A sole focus on simply reducing the carbon footprint of the petrochemical sector will not address the wider environmental justice issues nor will it solve the existential crisis that we have now reached from global chemical pollution.  Using carbon capture and storage, shifting from coal to gas, or recycling plastic to produce the same hazardous feedstock chemicals and a variety of persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances throughout the value chain is far from sustainable.

Switching to biobased and renewable feedstocks to produce benzene, toluene and xylene will not help fenceline communities.  As the environmental health network, Coming Clean highlights: 'there is no such thing as ‘green benzene’ – it remains a known carcinogen regardless of what source of carbon is used. 

The Louisville Charter for Safer Chemicals lays out the vision and roadmap to get there. 

The Louisville Charter is an initiative by The Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform and Coming Clean, a non-profit collaborative of environmental health and environment justice experts working to reform the chemical and energy industries so they are no longer a source of harm.  To get a clear overview of the roadmap to sustainable chemistry from a human rights and environmental justice lens, this is the resource for you. The charter’s 10 policy planks have been endorsed by over 125 organizations.  

I authored the ‘Safer Substitutes and Solutions’ plank policy paper, which was reviewed by EJ leaders in the network and released on July 13, 2022. “Transforming the Chemical Industry: Safer Substitutes and Solutions for a Non-toxic Economy” emphasizes the need for decarbonization with detoxification, and highlights false solutions to avoid if we are to transition to a truly sustainable chemistry. Our networks’ call to “switch to safer basic chemicals’ was also highlighted in Chemical & Engineering News.

It is important to note that the investor community is increasingly asking for EJ Audits to understand and track change based on data

In 2022, Parnassus Investment asked Republic Services to conduct a third party EJ Audit and publish results online. This shareholder resolution received support from top shareholders Blackrock, JP Morgan and UBS.  As the evolution of comprehensive EJ audits take place, we can expect to see a lot more  requests from investors for EJ Audits. We can also expect to see more requests for chemical footprint reductions and engagement with the Chemical Footprint Project – which provides a roadmap and a metric to reduce the use of chemicals of high concern.

My presentation at this government event was well-received,  and throughout the day I gained valuable insights into the barriers and opportunities to advance innovative chemical production systems. Biobased feedstocks are on the increase and we now need data on the chemical footprint of these new chemical production facilities.  Examples of new and safer feedstock chemicals need to be better communicated, along with narratives of any community engagement. Networking with community groups and stakeholders with chemical hazard expertise could hasten the transformation that is necessary. I left the meeting hopeful that change is not only possible but already beginning to happen. 


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