Watchdog Finds a US Chemical Plant Isn’t Reporting Emissions of Climate Super-Pollutants and Ozone-Depleting Substances to Federal Regulators

Fenceline monitoring by the Environmental Investigation Agency furthers the call to close industry loopholes under an international environmental agreement.

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Honeywell Specialty Materials in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Credit: Kathleen Flynn for the Washington Post
Honeywell Specialty Materials in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Credit: Kathleen Flynn for the Washington Post

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U.S. chemical manufacturer Honeywell International released chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)—climate super-pollutants and ozone depleting substances that are banned except for limited uses under an international environmental agreement—according to a report released Oct. 10 by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a non-profit environmental organization based in Washington, D.C. 

The findings highlight exemptions granted to the chemical industry in the U.S. and internationally that allow for ongoing emissions that threaten efforts to curb climate change and delay the full recovery of the ozone hole. 

EIA monitored chemical concentrations at the fenceline of a chemical plant owned by Honeywell in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  The group detected CFC-113 and CFC-114, man-made chemicals that are among the most potent greenhouse gases and ozone depleting compounds ever assessed. Honeywell has reported increasing emissions of both substances to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in recent years. 

However, EIA also detected CFC-13, a chemical that Honeywell had not reported to the EPA as having emitted since 2018. The group also detected two hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), potent greenhouse gases that the company did not report to the EPA in recent years, including in 2022 when EIA detected the chemicals in the air outside the facility.

Global fluorochemical production and use, including CFCs as well as other fluorinated chemicals, are responsible for the equivalent of approximately 870 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, an amount roughly equal to all of Germany’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to the report. 

“A large chunk of these could be coming from known, legal production facilities,” Avipsa Mahapatra, climate campaign lead for EIA, said.

 Honeywell defended its reporting practices after the EIA released its report.

“Honeywell complies with and provides air quality reporting as required by the Environmental Protection Agency,” Honeywell spokesman Mike Hockey wrote in a statement. “We are committed to greenhouse gas reduction and have pledged to become carbon neutral at our facilities and operations.” 

Shayla Powell, a spokeswoman for the EPA, said the agency will follow up with Honeywell with questions about their 2022 greenhouse gas reporting following the EIA report. Any potential changes or updates to the facility’s emissions reported by the EPA would go through additional verification by the agency, Powell said.  

Companies may not be required to report their emissions to the EPA if the volume of pollution doesn’t exceed certain thresholds. EIA did not attempt to quantify the volume of pollution it detected. Companies may also not be required to report certain emissions if they meet other federal reporting exemptions for fluorinated gases.

EIA also conducted monitoring near chemical manufacturer Chemours’ chemical plant in Corpus Christi, Texas. The group reported the detection of hydrofluoro-olefin-1234yf (HFO-1234yf), a synthetic refrigerant manufactured at the facility.  Unlike HFC refrigerants, HFOs have low direct climate impacts, but are considered per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the report stated. PFAS are commonly called “forever chemicals” because they break down very slowly in the environment. Elevated exposure to PFAS has been linked to cancer.

“The report released by the non-profit Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), appears to be an attempt to discredit the importance of hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) solutions in helping advance global climate goals,” Cassie Olszewski, a spokeswoman for Chemours, said in a written statement. ​ “As a chemical manufacturer, we use numerous advanced technologies both in emissions controls and leak detection, including infrared technology. The EIA report is based on unvalidated air sampling using infrared spectroscopic gas detection (ISGD) technology.” 

EIA stands by its methodology, which was reviewed and validated by an independent, external expert, and its findings, Mahapatra said. 

Chemours continues to implement and advance state-of-the-art technologies to reduce emissions of fluorinated chemicals, including HFOs, Olszewski said. 

“It is important to note—while no consistent definition exists—HFOs are generally not identified as PFAS,” she added.  “HFOs are not persistent, have been through rigorous global regulatory approval processes and are deemed safe for their intended use.”

On a pound-for-pound basis, many fluorinated gases, including the CFCs and HFCs detected by EIA at the Honeywell plant, are thousands of times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide.  Fluorinated gases are the fastest growing type of greenhouse gases emitted globally, according to a recent assessment by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They are also among the longest lasting greenhouse gases, according to the EPA.

The production and use of CFCs was banned by more than 190 countries by 2010 under the Montreal Protocol, a binding environmental agreement, in an effort to stop the destruction of atmospheric ozone that protects Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. The agreement, which was first finalized in 1987, allowed chemical manufacturers to continue producing CFCs so long as they were used as feedstocks to make other chemicals that were less damaging to atmospheric ozone and the climate.  

At the time, policymakers felt the feedstock exemption would have little to no impact on the release of CFCs into the atmosphere because it was believed that all CFCs would be consumed in the production of other chemicals.

That has not proven to be the case. 

A study published earlier this year in the journal Nature Geoscience reported growing atmospheric concentrations of five CFCs, including CFC-13, that were banned under the Montreal Protocol except for feedstock use. 

Illegal production of CFCs in China was a known source of emissions prior to a recent government crackdown.  The current report underscores that feedstock emissions in other countries also play a role in increasing atmospheric concentrations of the gases.

“It is absolutely confirming what scientists have found in the atmosphere, that there are large emissions of these substances greater than would be expected under the Montreal Protocol,” said Stephen Andersen, director of research at the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, an environmental organization based in Washington, D.C. “What this fenceline measuring does is it proves that it’s not all coming from developing countries. It’s [also] coming from developed countries, including the United States.”

At current levels, increasing CFC emissions will add only a slight delay to the ongoing recovery of the atmospheric ozone layer. The ozone hole over Antarctica is on track to be fully restored by 2066.

The EIA report draws attention to growing CFC feedstock use and emissions that have been reported elsewhere, including in annual Toxic Release Inventory reports filed by Honeywell to the EPA.

From 2014 to 2021, CFC-113 and CFC-114 releases from Honeywell’s Baton Rouge facility increased by 52 percent and 36 percent, respectively, based on emissions data the company reported to EPA. Worldwide, production of CFCs and other ozone depleting feedstocks increased by 75 percent over the past decade, according to a 2022 report by the World Meteorological Organization. 

The EIA report may help explain growing and previously unaccounted for CFC concentrations detected by atmospheric scientists.

 Luke Wester, a researcher at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom and lead author of the Nature Geosciences study, said the EIA report highlights the need for increased emissions monitoring and reporting.

“If you’re going to reduce these emissions, or emissions of any greenhouse gas, you really need verification that emissions reduction is happening and that can only happen with completing an extensive monitoring,” Western said.

The report bolsters calls to tighten the feedstock loophole for CFCs and other ozone depleting substances under the Montreal Protocol.

“This is a no brainer,” said Andersen, who was the lead author of a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2021 calling for reducing feedstock exemptions in the Montreal Protocol. “In a world that is in a climate crisis, this is an easy solution to get started,” he said.  

Delegates from around the world are scheduled to meet in Nairobi, Kenya from October 23-27 for the annual “Meeting of the Parties” of Montreal Protocol members. “One of the agenda items of this Meeting of Parties is definitely looking at feedstocks,” Mahapatra said.

The State Department, which heads the U.S. delegation to the Montreal Protocol, declined to comment on whether or not the U.S. would support limiting existing exemptions for chemical feedstocks.

A previous version of this story misidentified the chemical that EIA detected at the Chemours chemical plant in Corpus Christi, Texas. The chemical detected was hydrofluoro-olefin-1234yf (HFO-1234yf).

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