Many Americans left behind in the quest for cleaner air

Just looking over the Southern California part of the interactive map, I am reminded of the fact that air pollution has a disproportionate impact on people of color and low-income communities.

By Jim Morris, Chris Hamby and Elizabeth Lucas, iWatch News

For all of her 62 years, Lois Dorsey has lived five blocks from a mass of petrochemical plants in Baton Rouge. She worries about the health of people in her life: A 15-year-old granddaughter, recovering from bone cancer. A 59-year-old sister, a nonsmoker, felled by lung cancer. Neighbors with asthma and cancer.

She’s complained to the government about powerful odors and occasional, window-rattling explosions — to no avail, she says. Pollution from the plants — including benzene and nickel, both human carcinogens, and hydrochloric acid, a lung irritant — continues.

“If anything,” said Dorsey, herself a uterine cancer survivor, “it’s gotten worse.”

Americans might expect the government to protect them from unsafe air. That hasn’t happened. Insidious forms of toxic air pollution — deemed so harmful to human health that a Democratic Congress and a Republican president sought to bring emissions under control more than two decades ago — persist in hundreds of communities across the United States, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News and NPR shows.

Congress targeted nearly 200 chemicals in 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, which the first Bush administration promised would lead to sharp reductions in cancer, birth defects and other serious ailments. But the agencies that were supposed to protect the public instead have left millions of people from California to Maine exposed to known risks — sometimes for years.

Records, some previously undisclosed, show the extent to which Washington is aware of the failure of states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to crack down on localized sources of hazardous airborne chemicals, known as air toxics, even when violations may have continued for years. According to the latest available data, the EPA knows of more than 1,600 “high priority violators” of the Clean Air Act — sites that regulators believe need urgent attention.

About a quarter of these high priority violators appear on an internal EPA “watch list that includes serious or chronic polluters that have faced no formal enforcement action for nine months or more. Until now, the list has not been made public. The latest version, dated September 2011, shows the names and locations of 383 industrial, commercial, military and municipal facilities, from oil refineries and steel mills to pharmaceutical manufacturers, incinerators and cement kilns. Many of these facilities bombard communities in Texas, Iowa, New York, Arizona, Oklahoma and other states with solvents that can cause cancer, metals that can cause brain damage, or other contaminants.

“There are still places in the country that are overburdened with toxic pollution,” Cynthia Giles, the EPA’s assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance, acknowledged in an interview with iWatch News and NPR.

In Houston, the blue-collar, primarily Latino neighborhood of Manchester lies in the bull’s eye of benzene emissions from the nation’s biggest petrochemical complex. Doctors diagnosed Valentin Marroquin with acute lymphocytic leukemia eight years ago, at age 6. While linking illness to toxic exposure can be difficult, Valentin’s mother, Rosario, doubts he got sick by chance. The ailment has been associated with benzene, and researchers have found elevated rates of childhood leukemia in Houston neighborhoods – including Manchester – with high levels of the chemical in the air. Refineries near Manchester have reported emitting hundreds of thousands of pounds of benzene over the last decade.

“When Valentin was a toddler,” his mother said, “he was running around with all this benzene falling on him.” The teenager, while in remission, lives with worry that his cancer will come back with full fury.

Almost every kind of community is afflicted by air toxics: Middle-class suburbs. Rural patches of the Bible belt. Urban corridors.

In Muscatine, Iowa, pungent haze from a corn processing plant hangs over an otherwise scenic stretch of the Mississippi River. Ash and bits of corn accumulate on houses and cars. For years, state regulators failed to notice what an inspector later characterized as a façade: The factory, while appearing to comply with air pollution rules, exposed nearby residents to a toxic byproduct, state records show. Finally, the EPA raided the plant in late 2009 as part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

In Tonawanda, N.Y., the producer of a key ingredient for iron foundries also violated air pollution rules for years and grossly underreported emissions of benzene and other dangerous compounds into the community, federal documents show. There, too, the EPA eventually stepped in, elbowing aside sluggish state enforcers. A continuing criminal inquiry led to indictments in 2009 alleging violations of the Clean Air Act.

In Hayden, Ariz., the federal government forced a century-old copper smelter to excavate the yards of nearly 300 residents because the soil was contaminated with arsenic and lead. Yet the state still allows discharges into the air of the same metals, which can cause cancer and neurological damage. Some citizens believe generations have been — and will continue to be — poisoned. The state views the smelter as only a minor source of hazardous air pollutants.

In Ponca City, Okla., black mist from a factory that makes a strengthening agent for tires settled on people’s clothes, pets, cars and lawns for decades — and still occasionally falls. Citizen complaints about a lung irritant and possible carcinogen filled 20 binders, but the state environmental agency did little. Emissions declined only after the city and some residents sued the company and won almost $20 million in settlements.

This reality of America’s poisoned places has been eclipsed by the prevailing political narrative. While some business and political leaders, including President Obama, increasingly warn of the impacts of overregulation on the foundering economy, many ordinary Americans face health risks from hazards that could have been limited through better policing.

To be sure, many Americans can breathe easier because of the Clean Air Act. But its intended benefits have eluded many others. As of August nearly 300 of the roughly 1,600 high priority violators had held this dubious distinction for at least a decade, EPA enforcement data show — evidence of a continuing failure by regulatory agencies to keep up.

Within the bureaucracy, the enforcement lapses are hardly a secret. A 2009 report by the EPA’s inspector general found that “in many instances EPA and States are not addressing high priority violations … in a timely manner,” thereby allowing “continued emissions from facilities [that] may result in significant environmental and public health impacts, deterrence efforts being undermined, and unfair economic benefits being created.”

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