Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Just 100 industrial facilities are to blame for more than a third of U.S. toxic air emissions. A new report ranks the biggest offenders.
Any community in close proximity to a petrochemical plant or oil refinery is familiar with the effects of air pollution: hazy skies, health issues and buildings covered in layers of grime. But some have it worse than others. Among the thousands of industrial sites and smokestacks across the U.S., just 100 of them account for more than a third of the country’s toxic air emissions, according to a new report released Wednesday by the Environmental Integrity Project.
The researchers are calling these super polluters “The Toxic 100.” Using data from the Environmental Protection Agency, they calculated that U.S. industrial facilities released over 300,000 tons of carcinogens, metals, and other toxic chemicals into the air in 2018. After adjusting for the toxicity of each pollutant when inhaled, that amounted to 4.7 billion tons permeating nearby neighborhoods. Of that amount, 1.8 billion tons were emitted by the Toxic 100, which make up less than 1% of the 15,500 companies listed in the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory.
An interactive map on the website of the United Church of Christ — which commissioned the report as part of its environmental justice efforts — shows a geographic pattern. Many of these facilities are clustered in the Midwest and southeastern parts of the U.S., including several in the Houston area and on the southeast coast of Lake Erie in Ohio. Another grouping appears inside Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” on the banks of the Mississippi River.
“It’s important to call attention to these facilities because it helps hold them accountable,” says Courtney Bernhardt, research director at the Environmental Integrity Project. “One of the goals of the inventory is to have facilities be aware of the amount of pollution they’re releasing, and to give communities living nearby more information about what they may be exposed to.”
At least 250 people live within a mile of each facility on the Toxic 100 list, and data from the report revealed that some of the most common pollutants they breathe in include ethylene oxide and chromium, both of which are carcinogens.
Expand that radius to three miles, researchers calculated, and 1.6 million people are affected. A demographic breakdown reveals that 45.8% of them are Latino or of color, and 41.9% percent fall more than two times below the federal poverty level. The figure also includes more than 112,000 children under 5 years old and almost 223,00 adults over 64. Combined, the two most vulnerable groups to air pollution make up roughly a fifth of the affected population.
“Lower income communities struggle with a disproportionate burden of toxic trespass, and these impacts follow families for generations to come,” said Yvette Arellano, a senior staff member at Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, speaking at a press conference on Wednesday about the report’s findings. “That’s done without their consent and without their knowledge—with communities living in the dark.”
TEJAS has long given a “Toxic Tour” through the Manchester neighborhood in southeast Texas, and one stop is a playground in Hartman Park. Plumes of smoke can be seen rising from an oil refinery less than a mile away —one of more than a dozen industrial facilities that borders the predominantly Latino community in the Houston metropolitan area.
“Too many kids have leukemia, and the parents know it's a bad area, but they can't get out,” Juan Parras, founder and executive director of TEJAS, says of Manchester, along Houston’s Ship Channel, where some 90 percent of residents are Latino and low income. “They came here because it’s affordable.”
Previous research found that children living within two miles of Houston’s Ship Channel had a 56% higher risk of developing cancer compared with kids living at least 10 miles away. The situation isn’t unique to Manchester residents, who also face other serious health issues like respiratory disease, developmental problems, and even early death. (Nationally, poor Latino communities breathe in the worst air, which comes largely from vehicle and industrial emissions.)
The Houston metropolitan area is home to at least 410 factories and manufacturing plants, which emit a quarter of all toxic air pollutants reported across Texas, according the the study.
Fighting the industry has proven challenging for activists like those at TEJAS, thanks to loopholes and lax state enforcement of the EPA’s Clean Air Act—even before President Donald Trump came into office and began rolling back regulations. One problem that the EIP points to is the lack of penalties against companies for “fugitive” emissions, which come from leaks either through unplanned events like hurricanes or during routine operations as a result of poor maintenance. They’re often hard to detect and measure accurately, says Bernhardt, and states like Texas, where leaks are extremely common, have done very little about them.
That’s why one of the report’s recommendations is to install real-time monitoring for volatile organic chemicals like ethylene oxide when the technology exists to do so.
“It would help the facilities identify when a leak is occurring and figure out how to stop it, and it could inform people living nearby and other decision makers,” Bernhardt tells CityLab.
TEJAS’s Parras says the more information, the better, but stresses that even with better monitoring, the data won’t be of much help if state regulators are unwilling to penalize companies for exceeding limits on toxic air emissions. In fact, facilities in Texas have for years exploited an “affirmative defense” loophole that allowed them to escape penalties by claiming leaks were due to unforeseen or unavoidable circumstances. In 2015 the EPA finally ordered Texas and 35 other states to close that loophole, but state officials never did.
When Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, it caused 4,000 illegal emissions events that leaked 63 million pounds of air pollution across the state. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issued fines for only 1.4% of those events, according to the Texas Observer. Last May, the EPA under Trump’s administration filed an order to rescind the 2015 directive, allowing Texas to keep the loophole open.
Bernhardt and her colleagues at EIP are calling for local governments to put more pressure on the industry within their borders. Otherwise, “there’s really no way to see these numbers come down,” she says.