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Many Americans left behind in quest for cleaner air

States, feds fail to crackdown on polluters of deadly toxins

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

Specifically, the inspector general found that the EPA rarely took over from the states cases involving high priority violators – even though some cases had dragged on for a year and a half or more.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., a co-author of the 1990 amendments, said he is troubled by the severe problems that linger in parts of the country.

“I don't think it's a great deal of comfort to tell somebody whose kids may develop brain damage or the adults in the neighborhood who may get cancer that, overall, we’re reducing toxic air pollutants,” Waxman said. “It doesn't help them. What will help them is that the industries that are in their area actually control the pollution and stop poisoning the people.”

A ‘patchwork of protection’

Two reasons for the government’s inability to muscle habitual polluters into line: Scant resources and politics.

The Clean Air Act delegated enforcement duties to the states, where shrinking budgets have led to less oversight. While the act allowed the federal government to subsidize up to 60 percent of states’ compliance activities, Washington has contributed far less over the past 15 or so years. Today it kicks in only about 25 percent. That translates to a loss of billions of dollars that could have reduced the number of people breathing bad air.

States are getting about $200 million a year in grants from the federal government, said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents more than 200 state, territorial and local pollution control agencies. By Becker’s calculation, the figure should be closer to $700 million. Result: scaled-back enforcement. “We are treading water,” he said.

Michigan could serve as a poster child for the consequences of the budget squeeze. The air division of the state environmental agency has lost about one-fifth of its staff in the past six years, slowing scrutiny of polluters. “Certain things don’t get done as quickly as we would like,” said Vince Hellwig, who heads the division. Annual inspections, for example, aren’t being finished on time.

The EPA, for its part, sometimes is disinclined to wrest policing authority from the states. Eric Schaeffer, a former top enforcement official at the agency, recalls hearing “bitter, bitter complaints” from state officials resentful of planned federal enforcement actions. “It can get pretty tedious,” said Schaeffer, now executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit group that litigates against polluters.

Politics comes into play, too. In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican and former director of the Office of Management and Budget under George W. Bush, has emphasized economic growth. He says the EPA should be renamed the “Employment Prevention Agency.”

Daniels has cultivated relationships with industry leaders, including the CEO of ArcelorMittal, owner of a steel mill near Gary, Ind., that is on the EPA’s watch list.

In 2005, Daniels put a former manager at the mill — when it was owned by Bethlehem Steel — in charge of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. Under Daniels’s appointee, Thomas Easterly, the department eliminated funding for local air pollution control agencies and made enforcement changes that environmental groups fear could make some cases harder to pursue. The agency said none of the changes threatens public health. “Tom Easterly has been the commissioner for seven years,” Daniels’s office said in a statement. “We do not have concerns.”

In a tough economy, such moves draw less criticism — and, indeed, appeal to Americans wary of a large, unresponsive government. “People here are more worried about surviving day to day and don’t even notice this happening behind their backs,” said Leonard White, a resident of Gary, an industrial city on Lake Michigan beset by six high priority violators within a 15-mile radius.

EPA officials say that while substantial progress has been made under the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, the results have been uneven. “We’re trying to fill that patchwork of protection that people deserve and expect,” said Gina McCarthy, the EPA’s assistant administrator for air and climate.

It’s not been easy. From the start, the EPA fell behind on issuing air toxics rules for swaths of industries — chemical manufacturers, paint-stripping operations, tire makers. When the rules did come out, they were often branded as weak by environmentalists, who went to court in search of relief. A number of rules were skewered by judges and tossed back to the agency for retooling.

Now, as the EPA tries to address the last major sources of hazardous air pollution — coal-fired power plants, industrial boilers, incinerators and cement plants — it’s encountering headwinds in Congress, mainly in the Republican-dominated House.

The 1990 amendments sought to crack down on sources of 189 chemicals that pour from stacks, leak from pipes and storage tanks and sometimes take the form of “fugitive emissions” from valves and seals. Emissions of the 187 listed chemicals (two were dropped from the original list) fell by 40 percent from 1990 to 2005, according to the EPA.

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But this is little consolation to people in communities such as Whiting, Ind. — among the many pockets of enduring pollution where citizens complain that their government has abandoned them. “I gave up on trying to make a difference,” said Paul Myers, who lives within a half-mile of a steel mill and a refinery in Whiting, just east of Chicago, and has spoken out against emissions from the plants. “The spirit of America is alive and well. It’s just not alive and well here.”

Gaming the honor system

The risks to Americans from air toxics may be even greater than EPA records suggest. One reason is a practice of relying on infrequent air monitoring that allows polluters to estimate chemical emissions and submit those estimates to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, a widely used database hailed on its 25th anniversary last month for the way it opens a window for communities on the hazards in their midst. “Everyone has a right to know if danger is lurking in their own backyard,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., one of the inventory’s prime backers, noted on the anniversary.

The public — and enforcers — may take these self-reported numbers as gospel. They aren’t. Voluntary reporting and the inventory can yield a picture so flawed it dramatically understates the actual amount of pollution. And with poor data, enforcers are hampered from taking meaningful steps.

“What can you do in an enforcement context when the underlying structure of getting the numbers, recording them accurately and reporting them is rotten?” said Schaeffer, who headed the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement. “You’re basically building cars without speedometers … and leaving people to guess what the emissions might be.” Studies have documented discrepancies between what’s reported and what’s emitted — sometimes, Schaeffer said, by a factor of 10 or more.

While illegal acts get more attention — and, enforcement officials say, are easier to prosecute — much of the toxic pollution that’s disgorged is legal, sanctioned by the very agencies entrusted to safeguard public health.

Illicit pollution can be the product of poor operations or maintenance. Some polluters save their dirtiest activities for nights and weekends, when regulators aren’t around to respond to complaints. In Muscatine, Iowa, a corn processing plant burned low-sulfur coal when the wind was blowing toward a state-operated monitor. That meant the monitor would detect less of a pollutant, sulfur dioxide, and the plant could avoid added scrutiny, inspection reports and other state records show.

The plant’s owner, Grain Processing Corp., does not dispute switching types of coal when the wind was blowing toward the monitor — but says it acted out of concern for public health. “People assumed that something was being hidden or we were trying to get out of regulation,” said the company's environmental director, Mick Durham, “but that’s not the case at all.”

A sizable amount of pollution requires no chicanery. Under a state-run, federally sanctioned permitting process, substantial toxic emissions sometimes are allowed. Permits don’t always require monitoring or include other protections. In effect, companies obtain licenses to pollute.

Frustration with this system in 2005 prompted two lawyers representing the predominantly African-American town of Mossville, La. — near the petrochemical manufacturing center of Lake Charles — to file an environmental racism complaint with what they felt was the only venue left to them: an international human rights commission. The commission, part of the Organization of American States, accepted the complaint last year — the first of its type to go forward against the United States. The case is pending.

“Every day, Mossville residents breathe toxic chemicals dumped on them by 14 industrial facilities," said one of the lawyers, Monique Harden, who is seeking relocation and medical treatment for her clients. “How is that possible? Well, it’s legal.”

With insufficient resources, regulators across the country have come to depend on an honor system. Companies are expected to volunteer information about their emissions, including when they have exceeded allowable limits. Investigators are finding that cases such as Grain Processing Corp. in Muscatine aren’t unique.

"Attempts to game the honor system are our bread and butter," said Mike Fisher, deputy director of the EPA's office of criminal enforcement, a detective and prosecutorial unit that has some 120 open Clean Air Act cases. Fisher estimates that about 90 of these cases involve efforts by polluters to mislead regulators.

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In October, for example, Houston-based Pelican Refining Co. pleaded guilty to felony violations of the Clean Air Act and agreed to pay $12 million in penalties for what the EPA called “numerous unsafe operating conditions” at Pelican’s Lake Charles refinery. Among other things, Pelican admitted in court documents that a monitoring system designed to detect unsafe levels of hydrogen sulfide, a potentially lethal gas, wasn’t working properly, and that it had bypassed a “scrubber” designed to remove the gas from the atmosphere.

‘What am I breathing?’

Some of the chemicals covered by the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments can be seen, smelled or felt. Others are undetectable to the average person. Some accumulate in soil, water and food.

A few of the compounds are familiar (asbestos, lead) but many are obscure, with unpronounceable names like 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin. All are destructive. Congress specified them in the amendments because they can cause cancer, birth defects, brain impairment, respiratory disease or other serious maladies; many of these conditions don’t appear until years or decades after exposure and aren’t easily tied to a particular chemical or family of chemicals.

When it comes to environmental health, precise cause-and-effect can be hard to determine. But the anxiety stirred by toxic chemicals, especially among parents, is considerable — in some cases worse than the physiological damage they inflict. “It’s awful,” said Tonya Pilch, one of several residents of Fernandina Beach, Fla., who complain about emissions from a pulp mill. “I don’t know what it lets off, but you can taste it. There’s a mist you can see in the air when it’s really bad. I wonder, what am I breathing?”

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA sets limits for soot and a few ubiquitous pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide. If higher levels are detected, stricter pollution controls may be required.

For a city like Gary, this means that steel mills, power plants and an oil refinery in the area must hold down emissions of fine particles that can cause respiratory problems and chemicals that can form smog. But there are no comparable restrictions on most air toxics, like manganese, which can affect the nervous system.

The EPA has set compound-specific standards for only seven of the hundreds of air toxics: asbestos, benzene, beryllium, inorganic arsenic, mercury, radionuclides and vinyl chloride.

The others? Covered by the sorts of broad, sector-wide rules that have been criticized by the courts.

In Gary, the dark haze from steel mills and power plants that once hovered over the community has lessened. Still, some worry about the unseen. “It could be a clear day, and it’s toxic as hell,” said Lin Kaatz Chary, a former steel mill worker and now a public health advocate. According to 2005 EPA data — the most recent available — people living in some neighborhoods in the Gary area were among the 5 percent of Americans facing the highest risks of cancer from hazardous air pollutants.

While tangible effects of emissions can be hard to measure, shards of circumstantial evidence sometimes emerge. In December, for instance, a study by the Texas Department of State Health Services concluded that the prevalence of birth defects in a three-county area that includes Corpus Christi — home to several large oil refineries, one convicted of criminal Clean Air Act violations in 2007 — was 74 percent higher than the rest of the state.

A 2010 study by researchers at the University of Texas School of Public Health found that women living in Houston-area census tracts with the highest benzene levels were more than twice as likely to have children with spina bifida than women living in areas with lower levels. And a 2008 study by researchers with the same institution found that benzene-saturated census tracts in the Houston area had elevated rates of childhood leukemia.

Such studies don’t prove that toxic emissions are harming children in Corpus Christi and Houston. But the law says that such proof isn’t required. Congress told the EPA to zero in on 189 chemicals — by and large, the worst of the worst — because of their well-documented ability to sicken and kill people.

Broken promises and the ‘watch list’

President George H.W. Bush couldn’t have made the goal any clearer when he signed the Clean Air Act amendments into law in November 1990, declaring “my determination that each and every American shall breathe clean air.” His EPA administrator, William K. Reilly, predicted that “30 million tons of toxic chemicals will be prevented from fouling the air every year” and that “as a result, air toxics risk will be slashed by three-quarters, and health problems will be reduced significantly, including cancer risk, respiratory disease, heart ailments and reproductive disorders.”

But the law’s promise remains unfulfilled. iWatch News and NPR sought to determine the scope of the air toxics threat by analyzing federal and state data, reviewing documents and doing ground-level reporting in 10 states. One of the documents was the Clean Air Act enforcement watch list, which as of September included 383 facilities. iWatch News and NPR obtained it by filing a Freedom of Information Act request. The news organizations earlier had obtained the July version of the list, which included 416 facilities.

According to a 2008 EPA report, the watch list reflects “recidivist and chronically noncomplying facilities whose violations have not been formally addressed by either the state or EPA.”A 2009 report by the EPA’s inspector general put it similarly: The list tracks “facilities with serious or chronic violations of environmental laws but with no formal enforcement response.” EPA officials said facilities on the list have not been subject to enforcement actions for at least 270 days following the discovery of a violation — a delay of nine months.

Most facilities on the list, which is updated monthly, are classified as high priority violators. Among the criteria for becoming a high priority violator: Excessive emissions of air toxics; violation of a state or federal order; and monitoring or recordkeeping deficiencies that “substantially interfere with enforcement.”

Not every high priority violator has been formally found to have broken rules. A plant can be considered a high priority violator even if its owner has reached a court settlement with the EPA, which wants to make sure all terms of the agreement are met. “You come off the [high priority violator] list when all the actions under the settlement have been completed,” said a senior EPA enforcement official, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak for the agency. “It takes time for the [required] work to be completed. We don’t trust these companies fully and want to maintain federal court supervision.”

Reporters with iWatch News and NPR attempted to contact representatives of all facilities on the July and September versions of the watch list. Most didn’t reply or declined to comment. Some of those who did respond seemed puzzled by their plants’ inclusion. Bill Day, a spokesman for Valero Energy Corp., which had seven sites on the September list, wrote in an email that the company’s facilities “operate under permits, and we work with federal, state and local regulators to ensure compliance with those permits. All issues are remedied as quickly as possible.”

Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, wrote in an emailed statement, “In the short time we have had to examine the list of fuel and petrochemical manufacturing facilities on the EPA Watch List, we and our members have found multiple instances of outdated and inaccurate information, along with failures to note that reported violations have already been resolved.”

Officials in some states also cautioned against reading too much into the EPA data. “Just because [companies are] on the list doesn’t mean we’re not actively working on them and pursuing a remedy to the concern,” said Brad Frost, a spokesman for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Illinois had 37 facilities on the list as of September; only Ohio and Texas had more.

Not every facility on the list may be a serious or chronic offender. While the EPA’s own documents describe the list that way, agency spokesman Larry Jackson said in an email that facilities may appear on the list for other reasons. For instance, enforcement officials may be tracking a polluter’s compliance with a court order. A company in negotiations with authorities also might be on the list. In other instances, violations may have been alleged but not proven. There also may be data errors — for example, a state agency’s failure to report an enforcement action to the EPA.

Jackson emphasized that the watch list “does not identify which violations may pose the greatest risk to public health or the environment.”

Even so, the analysis of EPA enforcement records by iWatch News shows that 95 percent of the facilities on the September list were classified as high priority violators.

The reason each facility is on the list — spelled out on the EPA’s internal version — is closely guarded by the agency. The EPA declined to disclose these details to iWatch News and NPR, citing a Freedom of Information Act exemption protecting law enforcement techniques and procedures.

Grant Nakayama, EPA enforcement chief under George W. Bush, said the list has been kept secret in part because of "violators out there that are really interested in gaming the system, beating the system, and anything that gives them forewarning, I think, would not be helpful."

While air toxics are concentrated in certain industries — such as oil refining, steel manufacturing, and coal-fired power generation — the watch list includes a broad cross-section of companies. Six industries account for more than one-third of the facilities: oil refining; electric power generation and distribution; organic chemical manufacturing; steel manufacturing; solid waste disposal; and crude oil and natural gas extraction.

More than half of the facilities on the September list are located in six states: Ohio, Texas, Illinois, Louisiana, Wisconsin and Indiana. About two-thirds are large enough to report to the Toxics Release Inventory; collectively, they admitted putting out some 34 million pounds of hazardous air pollutants in 2009.

Among them is the Huntsman Corp.’s chemical plant in Port Neches, Texas, owned by the family of Republican presidential candidate and former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman. Data reported by the company to the EPA show that the plant discharged nearly 300,000 pounds of chemicals into the air in 2009, including 142,000 pounds of substances on the hazardous air pollutant list. It’s recorded 27 separate high priority violations since February 2002, EPA data show. Neither Texas nor company officials responded to requests for comment.

EPA ‘still playing catch-up’

Many more polluters generate prodigious quantities of air toxics than are on the EPA watch list. All told, in 2009 the roughly 13,600 facilities required to report to the Toxics Release Inventory said they emitted at least 600 million pounds of hazardous air pollutants.

Some communities are in the crosshairs of multiple sources of pollution. Eight plants in Channahon, Ill. — a middle-class town of 12,500 about 50 miles southwest of Chicago — reported releasing some 644,000 pounds of air pollutants, including 163,000 pounds of toxics, in 2009.

Tammy Thompson, who lived in Channahon from 1998 to 2008, said the air got “progressively worse” beginning around 2002. “The fumes would come into your home,” she said. “My husband and daughter and I would wake up coughing and gagging in the middle of the night.”

Thompson said she complained repeatedly to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency but saw no improvement. Prompted by an inquiry from then-Sen. Barack Obama, an official with the U.S. EPA in Chicago explained in a 2007 letter to Thompson that the state had “primary responsibility” for enforcing the Clean Air Act and that regional monitoring showed that “air quality in the area where you live is generally good.”

Convinced that neither the state nor the federal government was going to protect them, Thompson and her family left Channahon three years ago and now live 20 miles away. “We took a $40,000-plus hit on our home just to get the heck out of there,” Thompson said.

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, in an emailed statement, wrote that the agency takes citizen complaints seriously and has inspected “all potential Channahon odor sources.” Two refineries that have been targets of residents’ ire are operating within the limits of their air permits, the spokeswoman said.

EPA officials generally tout their progress in cutting emissions nationwide — not the communities left behind. Giles, the EPA’s assistant administrator for enforcement, said the agency’s actions are “removing millions of tons of pollution from the air and water every year.” In the past 12 years, spokesman Jackson said, the EPA has reached court settlements with — or taken administrative actions against — 106 refineries; 242 units at 75 power plants; and 88 ethanol plants, among other polluters. Over a 20-year period beginning in 1989, the agency opened more than 1,600 criminal Clean Air Act cases, Jackson said.

But McCarthy, the EPA’s assistant administrator for air, acknowledged that “we’re still playing catch up” with the requirements of the Clean Air Act amendments.

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.

‘Bucket tests’ and lawsuits

With government unwilling or unable to pursue polluters with more zeal, citizens in some of the hardest-hit communities have taken matters into their own hands, collecting air samples at factory fence lines and hiring lawyers to pursue intractable polluters in court.

In Tonawanda, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo, residents fed up with chemical emissions from a plant owned by Tonawanda Coke Corp. began taking air samples outside the plant using specially equipped buckets. The sampling put federal investigators on the path to finding that the plant’s benzene output was 30 times higher than what it had reported to the EPA, agency documents show.

“It burns your eyes. It burns your throat. It’s just bad,” said Jeani Thomson, who has lived near the plant for 30 years and has had an array of illnesses. “I have everything under the sun that can possibly be wrong with a person and still be walking around. I have eye issues … I have had three different cancers. I have one lung. Half a stomach.”

In Ponca City, Okla., homes were invaded by fine, black dust from the Continental Carbon plant until the city and residents, including members of the Ponca Tribe, filed a string of lawsuits that brought multi-million dollar settlements and prompted state regulators to rewrite their rules. The company blamed other sources for the pollution, but declined to release its test results to iWatch News and NPR.

“Living with that plant was a complete nightmare,” said tribe member Karen Howe. “The dust came into your home. … I tried to get the kids a couple of pets — of course, they were outside dogs. As soon as they were outside even three or four days you couldn’t even pet them because your hands would be all black. If they rubbed up against you it would be black on your skin and on your clothes.”

In the late 1990s, several hundred residents of Hayden, Ariz., sued Asarco, owner of one of the nation’s few remaining copper smelters, hoping to get enough money to move away from the arsenic- and lead-contaminated town east of Phoenix. The company entered bankruptcy some years later and avoided big payouts. People are stuck, and the pollution continues.

Mary Corona, 53, has lived in Hayden since birth and said she suffers from constant, throbbing pain, as well as frequent bouts of nausea, dizziness and memory loss. She takes 10 prescription medications, including the powerful painkiller Oxycontin. When she was about 5, she began getting welts on her torso that looked like cigarette burns, she said. She remembers seeing thick clouds of dust from the Asarco tailings pile — today, a literal mountain of mining waste. Some neighbors have cancer; others have died. “There were people who could have stopped this years ago,” Corona said. “They didn’t care.”

Now and then, a court case against a polluter confirms the kind of corporate behavior citizens fear.

In July, a jury in St. Louis awarded $358.5 million — including $320 million in punitive damages — to 16 former residents of Herculaneum, Mo., who were poisoned as young children by airborne lead from a Doe Run Co. smelter. Evidence at trial included a confidential 1989 memo recommending against a mass buyout of contaminated houses.

“Implementation of such an idea would almost certainly invite a major class action suit,” a consultant wrote to one of the smelter’s three owners at the time. The owners decided to stick with the plan already in effect: Buy a few houses a year and rent them out with the stipulation that no children be allowed to live in them. Children, the consultant noted in his memo, are “more vulnerable than adults” to lead’s brain-altering effects.

In Baton Rouge, where Lois Dorsey has long worried about the health of her family and friends, EPA numbers seem to confirm suspicions of dirtier air. Emissions of hazardous air pollutants from five petrochemical plants clustered near Dorsey’s home jumped 14 percent in 2010 compared to the average for the previous five years, according to iWatch News’ analysis of Toxics Release Inventory data reported by plant owners.

An organization known as the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, has taught residents of Baton Rouge and other communities how to take air samples, shoot video and otherwise document air pollution problems. The bucket brigade’s program manager, Anna Hrybyk, isn’t surprised by the apparent rise in pollution. The response by state regulators to citizen complaints tends to be “very sluggish, often to the detriment of public health,” Hrybyk said.

Dorsey and her neighbors live in a state of disquiet. “I wonder about my health,” Dorsey said. “I’m 62. Am I going to live to 70, or even 66?”

Upstate of Baton Rouge, in Shreveport, members of Residents for Air Neutralization, a grassroots group in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, donned T-shirts saying “Clean Air Is Our Right” and went out with buckets on a sticky July 4 weekend in search of noxious odors from the Calumet Specialty Products oil refinery, about which they have complained for a decade.

Over community objections, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) approved a refinery expansion in 2006. Then, last December, Calumet agreed to pay a fine of $1 million for air emissions from its three plants in Louisiana, including in Shreveport, and to spend up to $15 million more on long-term pollution-control projects.

In one sense, the action confirmed what residents have said for years: The Shreveport refinery was polluting the air. But the settlement did little in real terms, residents say. The state refuses to back their main wish — to be relocated. Under the pact, moreover, it agreed not to punish Calumet if old violations were later uncovered. State officials said the clause was justified in the context of a settlement intended to produce cleaner air. Louisiana has long believed industry’s economic and job-creating benefits “greatly outweigh” the costs of pollution.

“I always thought LDEQ and EPA were supposed to be for the people. EPA stands for Environmental Protection Agency,” said Velma White, leader of Residents for Air Neutralization, stressing the words for impact. Her group, she said, “wouldn’t have been organized if LDEQ and the EPA were for the people.”

In public forums, Calumet has pitched itself as a job provider that tries "every day" to limit odors and emissions. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company — which did not respond to interview requests — said it did not expect the fine or the state-ordered improvements to have a “material adverse effect on our financial results or operations.”

The multimillion-dollar package was merely the price of doing business.

Reprinted by permission of The Center for Public Integrity.

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David Gilkey/NPR

After years of complaints by citizens and inaction by state regulators, much of the black carbon mist has finally lifted in the Oklahoma community where Karen Howe lives.

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