The Biden Administration Is Refusing to Regulate Toxic Fire–Causing Plastic Production

After an April 11 plastics recycling plant fire that spewed toxins and caused mass evacuations in Richmond, Indiana, the Biden administration has failed to take action on regulations that could prevent similar chemical infernos from occurring in the future.

This aerial photo taken on April 13, 2023, shows an industrial site after a fire in Richmond, Indiana. (Shi Lei / Xinhua via Getty Images)

As concerns mount over an April 11 plastics recycling plant fire that spewed toxins and caused mass evacuations in Richmond, Indiana, the Biden administration has failed to take action on regulations proposed in the wake of the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that could prevent similar chemical infernos from occurring in the future.

By refusing to challenge the plastics industry, advocates say the White House is overlooking the dangers of mass production and processing of plastics, beyond just how they contribute to water and land pollution. Only by preventing the creation of plastic waste at the front end, experts say — by reducing the types of production that contributed to the February train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio — can the type of fire that occurred at the Richmond warehouse be averted.

The plastic recycling facility in Richmond had been cited numerous times by city and state officials over the years, but the central cause of the waste buildup was a decision by the Chinese government to stop most imports of plastic waste in 2017, local officials told Indianapolis’s NBC affiliate. Shortly thereafter, additional waste began to build up at the 175,000-square-foot facility.

The owner may have been waiting on a bill sitting on Indiana Republican governor Eric Holcomb’s desk that would make it far easier to incinerate plastic waste in the state.

Meanwhile, days after the February 3 train accident — in which half of the thirty-eight cars that derailed were carrying materials related to plastics production — Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pushing for the agency to create new national targets for reducing single-use plastics production, actions they argued “can be implemented by EPA now, without further congressional action.”

Rather than acting on these lawmakers’ recommendations, on February 13, the Biden administration submitted a proposal for a potential United Nations treaty on plastics pollution that failed to address any of the lawmakers’ major concerns about plastics production. Instead, according to InsideClimateNews, the proposal took “positions similar to recommendations from the chemical and plastics industries,” by making the focus on reuse and recycling instead of binding cuts to plastic production.

Veena Singla, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council says that logic doesn’t address the core problem with plastic pollution: production.

“The train derailment in Ohio was carrying chemicals to make plastics. Now we have this toxic fire that showcases the end of the life cycle with plastic waste, which demonstrates the toxic life cycle of plastic from beginning to end,” she said. “The most effective way to manage plastic waste is to not make it in the first place. We need to reduce and eliminate single-use and PVC plastics; it’s a really good starting place to deal with the plastic waste problem.”

Democratic lawmakers’ proposed regulations, which were initially included in the Protecting Communities from Plastics Act last year, have been fiercely opposed by the main lobbyists for the plastics industry.

“I’m disappointed but not surprised by the continued hyperbole contained in this legislation, which only causes divisiveness in the efforts to come to real solutions to the environmental challenges we face,” said Matt Seaholm, a former Koch network operative who now runs the Plastics Industry Association, about the 2022 legislation in a December statement.

Joshua Baca, the vice president for plastics at the American Chemistry Council, called the bill “a raw deal for America.”

The American Chemistry Council was the country’s ninth-highest spender on federal lobbying in 2022, spending $20 million, which represented a nearly 20 percent increase from the year before. The organization’s Washington roster includes Democratic superlobbyist Heather Podesta’s firm Invariant, which it paid $320,000 last year.

Federal records show that the American Chemistry Council lobbied against tighter regulation of plastics, including the Protecting Communities From Plastics Act.

Along with opposing new safety regulations, the plastics industry is aggressively lobbying to remove plastic waste from federal solid waste regulations so companies can engage in so-called “chemical recycling” — the incineration of plastic waste. The February letter sent by Democratic lawmakers highlighted this move, urging the EPA to “Affirm the Agency’s treatment of plastic waste as ‘waste.’”

The bill sitting on Holcomb’s desk would allow Indiana facilities to use heat and chemical processes to break down plastic waste as part of a process it calls “advanced recycling.” (Holcomb has not announced whether or not he will sign the bill.)

At least twenty-three states have now passed similar bills, which have been backed by the American Chemistry Council.

But Singla at the Natural Resources Defense Council says the Richmond fire is further proof that the Biden administration and state legislatures shouldn’t adjust regulations to make plastic incineration easier.

“The plastics and chemical industry has been looking to change the classification of plastic waste from solid waste so it’s no longer considered solid waste by the EPA,” she said:

This fire really points to why that’s a terrible idea. We need it to be classsified as waste and handled as waste. You can still see that accidents happen under current regulations, but we absolutely don’t need it to be less regulated.

Julie Teel-Simmonds, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, agrees that the Biden administration should take immediate action to crack down on the $97 billion plastics industry.

“This toxic fire should be the last plastics disaster communities have to suffer,” she said. “It’s long past time for the federal government to crack down on this harmful underregulated industry.” She continued:

There’s so much the Biden administration can do right now under existing law, including denying permits to polluters and making them pay for accidents like the Richmond fire. We have to stop coddling these corporations and start dramatically reducing plastic production. Recycling isn’t the solution and shouldn’t be used to prop up this fossil fuel–based toxic industry.