Polluters are turning neighborhoods into “sacrifice zones” where residents breathe in carcinogens. The EPA allows it. We mapped the hot spots.

The Environmental Protection Agency launched sweeping changes this week to address long-standing problems brought to light by ProPublica’s reporting on industrial air pollution. Shortly after the November publication of our investigation, administrator Michael S. Regan toured some of the largest toxic hot spots identified by our analysis and said the agency was consulting ProPublica’s work as it considered reforms. On Wednesday, Regan announced the EPA’s next steps, which include a significant expansion of air monitoring in some of the most polluted neighborhoods in the country and a new wave of unannounced inspections of polluters.

“We are going to keep these facilities on their toes so that they’re doing their due diligence all the time and not just when there’s a planned inspection,” he said. “Being on the ground, seeing the situation for myself, and talking directly with community members, it is startling that we got to this point.”

The lack of high-quality information about what’s poisoning America’s air was among the biggest problems identified by ProPublica. Without good data, residents have no way of knowing about the dangers of what they’re breathing in and regulators are unable to act. Experts say that the agency’s commitment to ramping up air monitoring is a necessary move toward reducing excess emissions. The EPA announced a new Pollution Accountability Team that will launch this spring; it will use a plane to track emissions from above while inspectors monitor the air from the ground. The team will also work to improve the agency’s capacity to measure contaminants like ethylene oxide, a highly potent chemical that can lead to lymphoma and breast cancer. The EPA plans to focus these efforts on areas in the South that ProPublica’s analysis identified as having some of the highest excess cancer risks in the nation, including Mossville, Louisiana, and a corridor of heavily industrialized land along the Mississippi River known as Cancer Alley. The agency also said it would invest more than $600,000 to buy and deploy air-monitoring equipment across the region.

“These are really important steps,” said Robert Bullard, a sociologist at Texas Southern University who has spent decades documenting the disproportionate effects of pollution on communities of color in the U.S. “We’ve had incremental change and we’ve had ups and downs. But the arc right now is bending toward justice.”

In early November, ProPublica’s unprecedented data analysis revealed more than 1,000 hot spots of toxic industrial air pollution that the agency has allowed to take root across the country. We found that facilities were elevating the cancer risk of more than a fifth of the nation’s population, including 256,000 people exposed to risks the EPA deems unacceptable. In predominantly Black census tracts, we found that the estimated cancer risk is more than double that of majority-white tracts. During his trip across the South later that month, Regan toured hot spots in the Houston ship channel, Cancer Alley and Mossville, which community leaders said had never been visited by an EPA administrator. Residents shared personal stories with Regan about how environmental officials had ignored their concerns for decades even as they lost family members to cancers that they believed were linked to chemicals in the air. “We’re announcing actions that EPA is taking in direct response to what I saw and what I heard on the ground,” Regan said this week. “These conditions are unacceptable in the United States of America, and we can only move forward successfully as a nation when we lift people up and out of harm’s way.”

Regan speaks to the press in front of a cemetery in St. James, Louisiana, during his November tour. Credit: Kathleen Flynn, special to ProPublica

Several of the EPA’s reforms address the concerns raised by residents in Cancer Alley and Mossville, historically Black communities that are disproportionately affected by pollution. The EPA issued a notice of violation to Nucor Steel Louisiana in St. James Parish for unauthorized emissions of hydrogen sulfide and sulfuric acid mist, two pollutants that can irritate the eyes and throat. (Nucor didn’t respond to requests for comment.) It also required a chemical plant owned by Denka, which emits the carcinogen chloroprene, to install monitors at the fence line of its facility. Jim Harris, a spokesperson for Denka, said that the company looks “forward to a continued dialogue with Administrator Regan and the EPA” and added that it has been working with the St. John community “for some time and will continue to do so.”

ProPublica reported on the pollution from a massive plant owned and operated by the South African chemical giant Sasol, which emits ethylene oxide and contributes to 39% of the excess estimated cancer risk in Mossville, according to our analysis. In January, regional and local officials conducted an inspection of the Sasol plant, and this week, the EPA issued a letter to the company regarding potential Risk Management Plan violations found during the inspection. Sarah Hughes, a spokesperson for Sasol, said that the company is “reviewing the inquiry and will respond to the agency within the time period requested.”

While touring the perimeter of the Sasol plant with Regan in November, members of the Concerned Citizens of Mossville told the administrator about the need for higher quality air monitoring data, which they said the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality had failed to gather. (The LDEQ has not responded to ProPublica’s request for comment on this matter.) The EPA has now provided funds for the LDEQ to purchase a continuous monitor to be placed across the road from Sasol’s Lake Charles Complex and has committed to reviewing the data independently. “This is a long-overdue action, and we’re really happy that it’s occurring,” said Kimberly Terrell, a staff scientist at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, who works with the residents of Mossville and who told Regan about some of the issues with the LDEQ’s monitoring system during his tour. More broadly, the EPA has said that it will conduct reviews of several aspects of Louisiana’s air monitoring network. “We have heard from our clients that they are excited at the prospect of action because so often it’s all talk and little action.”

The EPA also previously announced an unprecedented $20 million in grants for community air monitoring, which residents we featured in our stories are applying for. Jennifer Crosslin, co-president of a concerned citizens group in Pascagoula, Mississippi, said her organization plans to apply for a grant to monitor the air in one of the city’s neighborhoods. The subdivision sits next to several large polluters, including an oil refinery and a shipyard. Residents have complained about noxious odors and persistent health symptoms for a decade. ProPublica’s analysis of EPA data shows that the facilities release enough pollution to raise the estimated industrial cancer risk in parts of the subdivision to levels the EPA considers unacceptable. The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality conducted some local air monitoring several years ago, but it decided against additional monitoring even though one of the samples showed cumulative cancer risks that exceeded EPA’s guidelines.

The EPA delegates the majority of its enforcement powers to state and local authorities, which means that the environmental protections afforded to Americans vary widely between states. A quarter of the 20 hot spots with the highest levels of excess risk are in Texas, and almost all of them are in Southern states known for having weaker environmental regulations. Advocates in Louisiana and Texas said that they welcomed the EPA’s willingness to take stronger actions in their backyards. “These environmental agencies in Southern states historically have had tremendous problems when it comes to enforcement of environmental protections,” Bullard said. “A lot of communities are looking to the federal government to do what our state agencies just won’t step up and do.”

Community leaders said they were heartened by the administrator’s commitment to scrutinizing some of the worst polluters in their neighborhoods. During the EPA’s tour of Cancer Alley, Robert Taylor, the founder of the Concerned Citizens of St. John, spoke candidly with Administrator Regan about the pollution that had displaced and sickened the parish over the decades. Taylor, who was born in Reserve, Louisiana, in 1940, said that after years of agitating for change, Regan’s actions seemed like “a miracle.”

“We have been so downtrodden and beaten down from our efforts of trying to protect ourselves,” Taylor said. “It has reinvigorated this community to see an official from the government actually protecting us.”

Robert Taylor speaks to Regan during the administrator’s tour of St. John the Baptist Parish in Cancer Alley. Credit: Kathleen Flynn, special to ProPublica

Jan. 27, 2022: This story originally misstated how the EPA’s Pollution Accountability Team is planning to track emissions from above. The team will use an ASPECT plane, not a helicopter.