There’s a huge new series of articles out this morning developed through a partnership between the Center for Public Integrity and NPR, focused on the nation’s failure to carry out the promise of the Clean Air Act to protecting us all from toxic air pollution. The lead story this morning from the center’s Jim Morris and others explains:
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.
And the first of NPR’s stories reports:
The system Congress set up 21 years ago to clean up toxic air pollution still leaves many communities exposed to risky concentrations of benzene, formaldehyde, mercury and many other hazardous chemicals.
Pollution violations at more than 1,600 plants across the country were serious enough that the government believes they require urgent action, according to an analysis of EPA data by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. Yet nearly 300 of those facilities have been considered “high priority violators” of the Clean Air Act by the Environmental Protection Agency for at least a decade.
About a quarter of those 1,600 violators are on an internal EPA “watch list,” which the agency has kept secret until now.
EPA estimates facilities across the country emit 40 percent less toxic emissions in 2005 than they did in 1990, but toxic air pollution has persisted in communities like Ponca City, Okla., Hayden, Ariz., Tonawanda, N.Y., and Muscatine, Iowa.
“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. It doesn’t help them,” says Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., an author of the 1990 update to the Clean Air Act. “What will help them is that the industries that are in their area actually control the pollution and stop poisoning the people.”
Cleanups, however, have been delayed by tension between the EPA and state environment programs, budget cuts and a system that allows companies to estimate their own toxic emissions.