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 has granted the state of Mississippi $500,000 to conduct air monitoring in Pascagoula, a year after ProPublica reported elevated cancer risks from industrial air pollution in the city.

Residents in the Cherokee Forest subdivision had long complained of toxic fumes and persistent health problems including headaches, dizziness and nausea. The neighborhood is surrounded by industrial sites, including a Chevron oil refinery and a shipbuilding facility that Bollinger recently purchased from VT Halter Marine.

ProPublica’s unique analysis of air pollution data estimated that parts of the neighborhood were facing a dangerous overlap of hazardous emissions including chromium, nickel and benzene. Residents spent years filing complaints with the state, attending public hearings and reporting odors and symptoms, with limited results, ProPublica reported. Officials with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality took several air monitoring samples from the subdivision in 2016 and 2017, but did not continue testing despite finding concentrations that exceeded EPA guidelines on cancer risk.

In its series “Sacrifice Zones,” ProPublica used Pascagoula as a case study of one of the largest failures of environmental regulation: The lack of community air monitoring for hazardous pollutants and the rarity of regulators intervening when citizens complain of excess pollution.

The EPA recently announced community air monitoring grants to 132 recipients, including the Mississippi agency. State officials will use the grant to measure key pollutants in the Cherokee neighborhood and determine “whether air quality problems exist, the associated level of risk to the community, and opportunities to mitigate such risk including identification of possible sources of elevated concentrations.”

The Mississippi agency plans to conduct air monitoring for one year, communications director Jan Schaefer said in an email. It will monitor continuously for particulate matter and collect 24-hour samples of air once every six days to track other pollutants. Those samples will be analyzed for methane, reduced sulfur compounds, benzene and related toxic chemicals.

The locations of the monitors, the start date and other technical details have yet to be determined.

The yearlong monitoring plan will be much more extensive and rigorous than past air sampling conducted in Pascagoula. Experts say long-term, sustained monitoring like this is often required to prove the impacts of industrial pollution.

Chevron Pascagoula Refinery Credit: Kathleen Flynn, special to ProPublica

A “systematic study, if done correctly and transparently, will provide a much clearer view of what is going on and how levels track with activities in the plants,” said Dan Costa, a former EPA scientist who is now an adjunct professor at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

In an email, Schaefer said ProPublica’s reporting did not influence Mississippi’s decision to conduct monitoring.

But resident Barbara Weckesser, whose pleas for this very kind of monitoring went unheeded for more than a decade, said she believes ProPublica’s reporting “absolutely” helped propel the grant and has bolstered the ability of her group, the Cherokee Concerned Citizens, to finally get regulators and the public to listen.

“We now had something we could take that was concrete proof” of our experiences and that would tell people to “pay attention,” she said. This is the monitoring system “we should’ve had nine years ago,” she added. Weckesser said she’s grateful for what she hopes will be an improved process. “I’m hoping the EPA will be on top of it and do a little bit more than they have. And I think they will.”

Bollinger and the EPA didn’t respond to requests for comment. A Chevron spokesperson directed ProPublica’s inquiries to the Mississippi agency.

Jennifer Crosslin, a volunteer organizer with Cherokee Concerned Citizens, said she is cautiously optimistic, but worries about whether the results will be good enough to pinpoint a specific facility as a polluter. The neighborhood lies near numerous shipyards, chemical plants and a Superfund site. ProPublica’s analysis of EPA data shows that five of those facilities, including the Chevron refinery and Bollinger shipyard, release carcinogens that elevate cancer risk in the subdivision.

Crosslin said she hopes Mississippi officials will work with her group on the monitoring design. When she asked regulators for a copy of its EPA grant application, they told her to submit a public records request, she said.

Schaefer said the agency wants input from “all interested stakeholders” but can’t begin the community engagement process until it receives the funds promised by the EPA. The grant application is a public record, Schaefer added, and the agency is “more than happy” to provide it to any third party who requests the document through the legal process.

Weckesser said the agency’s plan to sample for benzene only once every six days allows polluters to time their emissions for when the monitoring canisters aren’t running: “Do you think those fools over there don’t know that?”

Costa said state officials could get around that by monitoring on a more random schedule and not publicizing when they plan to collect samples. He was heartened by the EPA grants and said the agency is routinely understaffed and forced to play whack-a-mole on industrial pollution.

“Our plan has not yet been developed but we do know it will not include the broadcasting of when samples will be taken,” Schaefer said in an email. “EPA must approve the details (including the sampling schedule) as they are responsible for the oversight of the $500,000 they are providing to us.”

The new data will add to a growing pile of evidence of problems with Pascagoula’s air. In April 2021, the EPA conducted extensive mobile monitoring there. Using infrared cameras, the agency spotted plumes of hazardous chemicals streaming from Chevron’s flares, tanks and other equipment. Researchers drove a vehicle with air monitoring equipment past various facilities and found spikes of benzene concentrations as high as 217 parts per billion near the refinery.

The CDC recommends limiting short-term benzene exposure to 9 parts per billion. The EPA, which requires refineries to conduct its own benzene monitoring along the boundary of each facility, expects annual average concentrations to stay below 2.7 parts per billion.

The EPA’s mobile monitoring provided a series of snapshots, with concentrations going up and down at different locations, Costa said. “If the levels stay zero or low, you can be reasonably assured there is little going on.” The results show “there’s lots of fugitive benzene, and benzene is just one of those slam dunk chemicals.” It’s been known for decades that benzene can cause blood cancers, he said, “and you have to invest in ways of keeping it contained or cleaning up the air.”

Costa was concerned enough about the results that he tried to discuss them with EPA staff. He emailed several senior staffers at the EPA regional office in charge of Mississippi and identified himself as the former National Program Director for the agency’s Air, Climate & Energy Research Program, Costa said. He never heard back.

ProPublica, too, inquired about a more detailed round of monitoring the EPA conducted in the wake of ProPublica’s questions about Pascagoula. The EPA regional office told ProPublica last year that it conducted additional monitoring in late summer 2021, using advanced equipment that could pinpoint the source of specific leaks. Those results have not been released, and the agency didn’t respond to questions about what they found.

“I’m sure if that kind of concentration of benzene were wafting over Arlington, Virginia, something would be done about it,” Costa said. In Pascagoula, an industrial city with legacy pollution and houses wiped out by Hurricane Katrina, the story is quite different, he said. “These are citizens of Mississippi that deserve respect and attention to a problem. And they don’t have the financial guns to make this happen.”