South heavily represented on EPA's secret air polluter 'watch list'

A joint investigation by the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News and NPR has obtained the Environmental Protection Agency's internal "watch list" of serious or chronic Clean Air Act violators that have not been subject to timely enforcement.

A Facing South analysis of the data finds that the South trails only the Midwest in terms of the U.S. regions with the most listed facilities.

Of the 464 facilities on the list, 181 of them are in the Midwest. The U.S. Census Bureau defines that region as including 12 states in the north-central part of the country: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, the South comes in second with 139 facilities. Facing South counts 13 states as part of the region: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.

Ohio is the state with the most listed facilities at 58, followed by Texas with 46, Illinois with 43, Louisiana with 29 and Tennessee with 26.

"Polluters on the list may have violated any of a number of rules," iWatch News reports. "They might, for example, have failed to adhere to a state or federal order, or to obtain a permit. Emissions of hazardous pollutants may have been too high." For a full list of criteria, click here.

The EPA did not previously disclose the roster of facilities out of concern that it would be viewed as a "most-wanted list," a former EPA enforcement official told the investigation. iWatch News and NPR obtained the list through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In one installment of the news organizations' series on the list, the reporters share the experience of Lois Dorsey, who lives five blocks from a cluster of petrochemical plants in Baton Rouge, La. Facing South previously examined the pollution in this industrial corridor along the Mississippi River in a story titled "Chronic Exposure," part of our investigation into environmental health threats in the wake of the BP oil disaster.

iWatch News and NPR reports:

[Dorsey] 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."

The investigation also looks at a Latino neighborhood in Houston with high levels of benzene emissions and elevated rates of childhood leukemia -- a disease associated with benzene exposure. And it discusses the situation in Mossville, La., a predominantly African-American community so beset by toxic pollution that residents worked with the New Orleans-based nonprofit law firm Advocates for Environmental Human Rights to file a complaint with a commission of the Organization of American States -- the first time the U.S. has faced such an action. The case is pending.

The Center for Public Integrity/NPR investigation pins the blame for the lack of enforcement in part on inadequate resources. The Clean Air Act delegated enforcement authority to the states, where tight budgets have meant less oversight. At the same time, the federal government has cut back on enforcement subsidies.

But it also blames politics, with some state officials more eager to cozy up to corporations than to ensure communities are protected from pollution.

To read the complete "Poisoned Places" series, click here. For a copy of the watch list, click here.