Communities Across the Nation Struggle to Combat Air Pollution

Though the Clean Air Act and rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have reduced national air pollution levels, hundreds of communities around the country still struggle with dangerously poor air quality. Released on Nov. 7, Poisoned Places: Toxic Air, Neglected Communities is an investigative journalism project that raises awareness about these communities. The project includes a series of in-depth stories and an interactive mapping tool that raise important questions at a time when Congress is seeking to weaken the act and its enforcement.

In 1970, Congress authorized the EPA to develop and enforce standards to protect the public from exposure to smog, airborne contaminants that are known to be hazardous to human health, and other types of air pollution. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 expanded the agency’s authority and required steps to protect communities from nearly 200 dangerous substances, such as mercury, benzene, and arsenic. Agency efforts to reduce air pollution have resulted in an estimated 40 percent drop in national toxic emissions from 1990 to 2005.

However, despite the act and the progress made since 1990, air pollution continues to threaten the lives and health of millions of people in various communities throughout the United States. A recent report indicates that just over one half of the American people is exposed daily to toxic chemicals from industrial facilities, such as power plants, refineries, and cement plants. The pollution levels are frequently too dangerous to breathe, and exposure to the pollutants often leads to cancer, birth defects, asthma, and other serious health issues.

The Poisoned Places Project

Poisoned Places, a collaborative project of the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and National Public Radio (NPR), seeks to present air pollution data in a new way and to tell the stories of communities around the country fighting to protect their health and environment from polluters and lax enforcement of standards. As part of the project, CPI and NPR make public for the first time an internal EPA watch list of the most serious or chronic violators of the Clean Air Act. The list of 464 facilities, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, reveals that most of the violators have not faced any formal enforcement action for at least nine months, or in some cases, years.

The project also launched a new interactive online map, providing data on more than 16,000 facilities nationwide that release harmful chemicals. The interactive map integrates existing government data from four EPA datasets relating to sources of air pollution, including: the Clean Air Act watch list, the Air Facility System (AFS), the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), and the Risk Screening Environmental Indicators model (RSEI). Users of the site can find facilities near them and easily see what level of risk each poses.

Communities Struggle to Combat Toxic Air Pollution

Many communities have struggled for decades to get air pollution standards enforced. They have encountered industries that are disinterested in air quality and government officials tasked with clean air enforcement who have limited resources and are constrained by rules that restrict their actions.

The stories highlight how air pollution problems can be well known and yet difficult to address. For instance, in Ponca City, OK, the Continental Carbon Company pumped out carbon black, a black powdery substance that can cause cancer and other illnesses, such as asthma. For over 10 years, residents, including the Ponca Indian tribe, filed over 700 formal complaints to state and federal regulators about how carbon black had affected their health and community. However, state rules prevented regulators from taking action unless officials directly witnessed the pollution leaving the facility. Emissions declined only after residents sued the company and won almost $20 million in settlements. The company, which still claims not to have caused any pollution, purchased and then razed the homes closest to the plant.

Some Poisoned Places stories demonstrate how toxic emitters exploit loopholes that allow them to pollute legally. In Chanute, KS, a town of roughly 9,000 people, the Ash Grove cement plant was the second largest emitter of mercury in the state in 2004. A federal loophole permits cement kilns to burn hazardous waste without the same pollution control requirements of commercial hazardous-waste incinerators. Despite complaints of pollution and health problems by local residents, regulators have insisted that the Ash Gove plant is technically compliant with the pollution requirements that apply to the facility.

Another problem the stories have highlighted is that companies are allowed to self-report their own pollution and estimate the quantity of toxic chemicals they release. This system not only leads to erroneous reporting, but allows companies to underreport their pollution levels. In Tonawanda, NY, for example, the Tonawanda Coke plant reported releasing between three and five tons of benzene, a known human carcinogen. After decades of inaction by local and state officials, residents, suffering from a host of illnesses, including fibromyalgia, breathing problems, rashes, infertility, and various forms of cancer, began conducting their own air tests. In 2009, the EPA charged the company with violating the Clean Air Act, finding that benzene emissions were over 90 tons annually, 30 times what the plant reported and well beyond emissions limits.

A Tool to Increase Public Awareness

Public awareness of pollution has proven a powerful tool in forcing more responsible actions by industry and government. Without access to information on pollution and compliance that is easy to understand, citizens are often left to complain for years with little or no results. When informed about the toxics in their air, residents are better able to organize and demand investigations from government agencies and improvements from companies.

Keith Epstein, CPI Managing Editor, explained the empowering effect of the project. "Users can start learning the health risks in their neighborhood," he said. "People who are worried about the air – and complacency of regulators – can learn how to test it themselves." Local "bucket brigades" have proven incredibly important in confirming community suspicions and leveling the playing field when facilities misreport their pollution levels.

The project, in particular the watch list and map, has also been especially useful to reporters around the country. The data has inspired local reporting on air pollution in Minnesota and California. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR environmental correspondent, believes that the watch list "could be a good source of leads for stories," alerting reporters to the facilities that are known violators of the Clean Air Act.

Poisoned Places has already begun to result in new actions by government officials. In fact, just days after the article series covered the Asarco copper smelter in Hayden, AZ, the EPA declared the facility was breaking the law by releasing illegal amounts of lead, arsenic, and eight other dangerous compounds for six years. The finding also suggests that the state of Arizona, which has primary responsibility for federal Clean Air Act enforcement in the state, has failed to take meaningful action against the smelter.

Protecting Clean Air in the Face of Congressional Attacks

The investigative series also brings to mind serious questions about congressional efforts to weaken and delay enforcement of the Clean Air Act. In the House, representatives passed the Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation (TRAIN) Act (H.R. 2401) in September. The TRAIN Act would block clean air safeguards designed to curb mercury emissions from power plants and limit air pollution that travels across state lines. In the Senate, Democrats recently blocked a bill that would have rescinded EPA controls on toxic emissions from industrial boilers and cement factories.

It is disappointing that, despite the clear agreement on the need for clean air, Congress would consider creating more loopholes and exemptions, especially when the Poisoned Places project makes clear that we have more work to do on air quality and that many communities continue to live with health risks from the air they breathe.

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