Polluters are turning neighborhoods into “sacrifice zones” where residents breathe in carcinogens. The EPA allows it. We mapped the hot spots.
The white ranch house in Pascagoula, Mississippi, was supposed to be Barbara Weckesser’s retirement plan. In 2010, it was getting harder for the real estate agent and her husband to climb the stairs of their home on Dauphin Island, Alabama. She imagined a quiet existence of gardening and puttering around her porch. The Cherokee Forest subdivision seemed like just the place to do it. Rabbits wandered the lawns among the dozens of modest homes built in the 1960s and ’70s; families stayed put for decades. The ranch was a fixer-upper, so the couple tackled it together, installing drywall and hanging up new doors and cabinets.
Then came the dust. Weckesser, who was 64 at the time, first saw it after she left a window open one fall day in 2011 and black soot settled onto her new kitchen countertops. “I said, ‘Holy hell, what in the world is this?’” She later found a grayish film on her black car. She knew it wasn’t pollen because it felt gritty, like sand. Her first guess was that it was coming from VT Halter Marine, a shipbuilder located 800 feet away that was undergoing repairs to fix damage from Hurricane Katrina. The site later became the scene of constant painting, sandblasting and welding, as workers rushed to fulfill contracts with the Navy and Coast Guard.
Months passed and the dust kept falling in Pascagoula — more than she had ever witnessed growing up near Kentucky’s coal fields. Weckesser got headaches from chemical odors and wondered if it was safe to eat the tomatoes she’d planted. Fed up, she found a number for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, the state agency charged with ensuring clean air. It had issued operating permits to the shipbuilder and a dozen other major industrial facilities nearby, including a huge Chevron oil refinery and a chemical plant. She wanted the regulators to find out where the noxious fumes were coming from.
When she called MDEQ in March 2012 about a “welding gas” smell that left a metallic taste in her mouth, it took four days for an inspector to drive by the shipyard. The inspector noted strong odors and a billowing yellowish-white cloud near Mississippi Phosphates, a local fertilizer manufacturer. The company told MDEQ that the cloud was probably steam. That was the extent of the investigation and Weckesser’s first glimpse of a larger, frustrating reality.
Neither industrial polluters nor the regulators who govern them know exactly how much hazardous air pollution is billowing out of smokestacks at any given time, nor the degree to which that pollution is finding its way into surrounding neighborhoods. The law doesn’t require them to.
Back in 1990, when the Clean Air Act mandated how the Environmental Protection Agency would regulate industrial air pollution, monitoring methods were crude, expensive and limited. So the EPA allowed facilities to estimate their emissions of hazardous air pollutants, also called air toxics, like hexavalent chromium and ethylene oxide that can cause cancer, respiratory illnesses, heart problems and other ailments. The agency entrusted states to enforce these rules through air permits, which set limits on the amount of chemicals each facility could emit. Despite dramatic advances in technology, a lot of these permits still rely on self-reported estimates that are often outdated, incomplete or inaccurate. Only rarely do regulators check to see if what is reported matches reality.
“We built this whole regulatory system based on a lack of good data,” said Adam Babich, a Tulane professor who specializes in environmental law. It “gets harder and harder to argue with a straight face that it’s unreasonable to require extensive monitoring.”
The EPA and state agencies could install air monitors in communities to gauge how much toxic pollution reaches neighborhoods. But there’s no federal requirement to do that. ProPublica, in an unprecedented analysis of modeled EPA emissions data, identified more than 1,000 hot spots of toxic air pollution nationwide. Yet the EPA spends only $5 million per year to run 26 monitoring stations across the country; it offered another $5 million last year for state and local air monitoring grants and will use $25 million from President Joe Biden’s coronavirus stimulus package to help communities monitor for air pollutants of interest, including air toxics.
If a neighborhood is among the minority of hot spots to actually get a monitor installed, and if that monitor reveals that residents are, indeed, breathing in troubling levels of air toxics, the law doesn’t require regulators to investigate to see whether nearby polluters are violating air permits.
“There’s often no environmental cop on the beat,” said Judith Enck, a former EPA administrator for the regional office that covers areas including New York and Puerto Rico. Every time she explains that reality to communities, she said, it’s “kind of like telling people there’s no Santa Claus.”
In a statement, the EPA said it is working to improve its data on emissions of toxic air pollution, do more to communicate risks to the public, develop regulatory solutions and reduce pollution. “Too many communities have suffered disproportionately from air pollution and other environmental burdens for far too long,” the agency said. “EPA recognizes the continued frustration experienced by residents living with increased health risks due to environmental pollution.”
So far such residents have often been left to fend for themselves. Across the country at any given time, countless “kitchen table activists,” as Enck calls them, toil in relative obscurity, struggling to get help from the agencies that are supposed to protect them. To get the agencies’ attention, they need to organize, hire lawyers and technical experts, collect evidence of the pollution’s impact and drum up publicity. Regulators have a “tremendous amount of discretion” about how deeply they investigate citizen complaints, she added. “It’s always interesting to see agencies respond when there’s embarrassing stories in the media.”
Weckesser didn’t know what she was up against when she knocked on her neighbors’ doors and jammed homemade flyers under their windshield wipers. The flyer posed a simple question: Are you tired of the dust and the smell?
Her working class neighborhood included a number of residents who held jobs at local industrial facilities. Among the first to respond to Weckesser were Fred Nelson Sr. and his wife, Bobbie, who had lived there since the 1990s. Fred had worked in shipyards, but he only started to notice the severity of the odors after retiring and spending most of his time at home. He understood the basics of chemical emissions and became so concerned that he wore a mask to mow his lawn.
The Nelsons and other neighbors joined Weckesser to form the Cherokee Concerned Citizens, a group that started speaking up at government meetings and talking to regulators, industry representatives and local journalists. “We’ve had five cases of pneumonia in our neighborhood in the last couple of months,” Weckesser told GulfLive.com in May 2014. Bobbie Nelson told the Biloxi Sun Herald that a doctor recommended she leave the neighborhood — “Like you can do that, just pick up and move,” she said to the reporter.
In the summer that followed the interviews, MDEQ cited VT Halter for violating dust, odor and air toxics rules after an inspection found leaking paint and solvent containers, among other problems. The agency fined the company $145,000 and ordered it to speed up the construction of a building that would trap the emissions from painting. It made little difference to the Concerned Citizens, who could still smell fumes.
A few of the neighbors started to keep formal odor logs in late 2014, in the hopes that the information would force MDEQ to clamp down on polluters. Weckesser’s first entry noted moderate “fumes from welding or something like that,” accompanied by an “immediate” burning in her eyes and nose. The neighbors’ logs often corroborated each other. One day, the group recorded a “severe” acid smell, burning eyes and “numb” lips. Another day, they registered something they could only describe as a “sick” or “weird” smell. A neighbor reported a sick stomach; Weckesser recorded a raw throat.
In the fall of 2016, two years after residents began logging symptoms and odors, state workers placed several metal canisters around the Cherokee Forest subdivision, which were designed to capture samples of the neighborhood air for 24 hours.
The results, released in January 2017, revealed that residents were breathing in an array of cancer-causing pollutants. Some samples captured concentrations that were above values the EPA said should trigger further investigation; the toxics they found included 1,3-butadiene, which can irritate the eyes, throat and lungs, and benzene, which can cause headaches and dizziness. Both can lead to leukemia.
State regulators knew from the start that they wouldn’t be able to blame specific facilities for these emissions. “Since only a limited number of samples are collected over a relatively short period of time,” the agency wrote in its report, “the information obtained cannot be used for enforcement or compliance purposes.”
The EPA says it “strives” to minimize the number of people subjected to an excess cancer risk higher than 1 in a million — meaning that if a million people were exposed to the same concentration of industrial pollution over a lifetime of 70 years, at least one person would likely develop cancer; that risk is on top of other risk factors like age, diet and genetic predisposition. The agency sets the maximum acceptable industrial cancer risk at 1 in 10,000 — a level 100 times less stringent than the 1-in-a-million goal. Numerous experts told ProPublica it was too high.
The Pascagoula residents wanted someone outside of MDEQ to do an analysis of the health risks, so they sent their monitoring results to Mark Chernaik, a scientist at an environmental health nonprofit in Oregon. Chernaik calculated the combined cancer risks posed by five carcinogens detected in the samples; he chose those compounds because California’s environmental agency — a regulator known for its extensive environmental health expertise — had fairly up-to-date data on how the chemicals affected cancer risk. The most concerning sample showed a cancer risk of 1 in 10,600, barely meeting EPA’s 1-in-10,000 threshold.
The results crystallized the risks for the Nelsons’ daughter, Barbara, a preschool teacher who lived outside the subdivision, but who was at her parents’ home almost every day. She’d noticed the pollution getting worse since 2011, and in 2014, she joined Weckesser in logging the odors. “I knew there was something wrong,” she said, citing how several of her neighbors had died of cancer in recent years. “When we saw [the monitoring results], we were like, ‘Oh my God, you mean to tell me these people were allowed to use this stuff, knowing it causes cancer?’ And they seemed to think it was OK. No, it’s not OK. People are dying, you idiots.”
Her father, Fred, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in September 2017, she said. He died the following month. Though it’s rarely possible to know whether air pollution contributed to a specific cancer case and scientists know little about the causes of pancreatic cancer, limited evidence suggests that exposure to benzene and other contaminants may increase the risks.
ProPublica conducted its own analysis of the annual emissions estimates reported by facilities near the Cherokee Forest subdivision. Data from 2014-18 shows the excess lifetime cancer risk in some parts of the neighborhood, including Weckesser’s home, was estimated at 1 in 42,000, due to emissions coming from five facilities. ProPublica found that the EPA underestimates the cumulative risk faced in neighborhoods like this one, which are surrounded by polluters, because it examines the impacts of facilities by category, without considering the combined risks when multiple types of polluters are clustered together.
The estimated average risk at the Nelson home over those five years was 1 in 6,100; in 2015, it reached 1 in 2,900, more than three times higher than the EPA’s threshold. Barbara Nelson believes the pollution from nearby facilities contributed to her father’s death. “These people need to be held accountable,” she said.
Almost all the risk on the Nelsons’ block came from VT Halter’s chromium, nickel and ethylbenzene emissions, the analysis showed. VT Halter told ProPublica that its reported hazardous emissions were accurate, but it did not comment on their impacts. “Halter Marine is committed to being a responsible environmental partner in our community” and “strictly adheres to all Federal and State environmental guidelines,” the company said in a statement. It cited a $10 million “large state-of-the-art integrated blast and paint facility” it built in 2018 to contain dust and air pollution. VT Halter “has also invested in reducing dirt and sand in the air by paving various areas of the yard where heavy equipment such as cranes move through the facility,” the statement said. “Halter Marine is proud that we have not had a violation citing since 2014.”
MDEQ took two more air samples in 2017. One of them, captured near Weckesser’s house, reflected a risk of 1 in 9,000, according to Chernaik’s calculations. Despite the rare piece of concrete evidence that subdivision residents were being subjected to unacceptable cancer risks, MDEQ didn’t continue testing.
Aside from an initial phone call covering basic questions, MDEQ officials declined multiple requests to discuss how it regulates air toxics, answering questions only in writing. Regulators would not meet in person when a reporter spent two days reading public records in the agency’s headquarters, several floors below the Air Division office. In an email, spokesperson Robbie Wilbur said the MDEQ reviews the emissions data reported by facilities and appropriately handles any violations it discovers. MDEQ also conducts “routine unannounced” site inspections to ensure industrial plants comply with their permits. Outside of emergency situations like chemical fires or gasoline spills, MDEQ hasn’t performed air toxics monitoring since June 2017, he said, noting that the results from the Cherokee air monitoring “showed no contaminant levels of concern.”
Enck, the former EPA regional director, saw MDEQ’s response to the sample data as akin to the military’s now-abandoned “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. “This is the culture at a lot of agencies,” she said. MDEQ could have “drilled a few levels deeper,” reviewing permits and requesting data on the efficiency of the facilities’ pollution-control equipment, said George Czerniak, a former director of the air division in the EPA region surrounding Chicago. The agency could have ordered nearby facilities to conduct one-time tests to measure the air toxics coming out of their smokestacks. This data could show whether facilities are violating their permits and could lead to real enforcement, Czerniak said.
The EPA can do all of that as well, but it rarely does, preferring to defer to state regulators, Enck said. “Most of the time when we told [state] agencies that we were going in to do something enforcement-wise, or enhance testing, the agencies get very defensive and try to wave off the EPA.” The EPA’s reluctance to act comes down to “political sensitivities,” Czerniak said. “It really is more of a failing of those regional offices, in my mind, and the failure of EPA enforcement headquarters to make the regions step up.”
ProPublica’s analysis found that almost all of the nation’s worst hot spots — those with the highest levels of risk from air toxics — are in Southern states known for having weaker environmental regulations.
EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan told ProPublica that he has directed the regions to be good “co-regulators” with states and step in more aggressively when those agencies aren’t doing enough. “The states have lots of delegated authority, and we expect the states to execute on that delegated authority,” he said, “but if they don’t, EPA will step in, we will lean in, and we will ramp up our enforcement capabilities.”
It would be a lot easier to hold facilities accountable if the EPA required more air monitoring.
There is no substitute for monitoring at the smokestack, said Scott Throwe, a former senior staffer in EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. In 1993, the agency proposed a rule to require more extensive stack monitoring. But Throwe said it faced opposition not just from industry, but also from the leadership in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. “The last thing they wanted was controversial requirements added to any regulations that would generate significant public comments and potential litigation,” he said.
State and local pollution-control agencies, too, protested that it was “too costly given the benefits involved, too burdensome on local permitting authorities, inconsistent with congressional intent regarding costs, and likely to stifle innovation,” according to a summary by a federal court in a lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. NRDC had sued the EPA after it adopted a watered-down version of the monitoring rule in 1997. The group argued that the rule — which didn’t require continuous emissions monitoring at the stack — failed to comply with the Clean Air Act. The court ruled that it did.
In the years that followed, the EPA worked alongside industry to bat down other attempts to force real emissions monitoring. In 2008, for example, the NRDC sued the EPA over emissions from certain chemical manufacturers. NRDC argued the agency shouldn’t be allowed to assess the health risks from those facilities based on incomplete data that was self-reported by companies. The numbers the NRDC contested came from the American Chemistry Council. The EPA argued it would have been “very costly and time-consuming” to get better data. NRDC lost the case.
There is only one exception to the lack of routine air monitoring of hazardous pollutants. One kind of facility, refineries, must monitor the air continuously for one chemical, benzene. This doesn’t happen at the stack, but at the edge of the industrial property, called the fence line, so it reflects what is dispersing into surrounding areas. When the EPA first floated the rule in 2007, the American Refining Group called it “technically and economically cost prohibitive.” Citgo Petroleum wrote that it would place an “unfair burden” on refineries, as the instruments could detect benzene from other industrial facilities that weren’t required to monitor for the pollutant. EPA backed off.
But unlike most other types of facilities, refineries cannot escape public scrutiny. There’s a strong history of local activism near these heavy polluters, and academics have amassed a robust body of research about what happens to people living near them. In 2012, a coalition of community and environmental groups sued the EPA, demanding that the agency force these facilities to monitor and limit refinery emissions. The Obama administration adopted the benzene rule in 2015. The EPA set an annual average of 9 micrograms per cubic meter as the maximum concentration expected from any refinery at the fence line.
In 2019, 10 refineries — including the one owned by Chevron in Pascagoula — exceeded the EPA’s benzene guidelines. Data from the company’s 22 monitors around its Pascagoula facility showed average concentrations of roughly 10 to 16 micrograms per cubic meter from April 2018 to March 2019. The following year, 13 refineries nationwide exceeded EPA’s limits.
The EPA had set its threshold of 9 micrograms per cubic meter after taking refineries’ self-reported emissions data and conducting air modeling to see what concentrations would be like at the refineries’ boundaries. If every refinery had truly released as much benzene as it claimed in its reported estimates, its fence line benzene levels would have remained below that limit, said Babich, the Tulane professor. “Which leads you to believe that either their monitoring or estimating methodology is not up to snuff, or they’re lying.”
Chevron spokesperson Tyler Kruzich said the company has “voluntarily installed additional” air monitors in and around the Pascagoula refinery to help technicians pinpoint the source of leaks and make repairs. “As a result of our efforts, fence line readings have decreased and are below the regulatory action level.”
The refinery brought down its benzene levels to 8 micrograms per cubic meter in 2020.
In Pascagoula, the headaches continue.
Wilma Subra, an environmental health expert who helps communities struggling with pollution, surveyed 80 residents of the Cherokee Forest subdivision between 2018 and 2019. Almost everyone reported noticing industrial odors, for an average of 22 days a month. Many believed these crude oil, ammonia or sulfur-like smells were linked to their ailments: sinus problems, rashes, burning eyes, nausea and dizziness. Subra said their experiences are typical of fence line communities all over the country. Even when residents exhaustively document the problems, they can’t get the government to take meaningful action.
Barbara Nelson got too busy taking care of her mother, who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, to do much activism, but Weckesser has carried on. Now 74 years old, with a crown of white hair and thick glasses, Weckesser still contacts the MDEQ any time she smells something strange.
On Dec. 16, 2019, she called MDEQ about “a strong acid smell.” An inspector drove around town and noticed odors near VT Halter and outside of every facility along the aptly named Industrial Road. “It was a foggy day and the odors seemed to be held in place by the weather,” the inspector wrote. The file made no mention of using scientific instruments or any tools beyond the inspector’s own nose.
Weckesser complained to MDEQ at least 30 times last year alone, including five times in one week. After she reported a smell coming from Chevron, refinery officials pledged to install odor-eliminating technology so the next time they performed the offending process, which involved inserting nozzles on the side of a tank, it would “either smell like green apple or flowers.”
In an emailed response to detailed inquiries about the Concerned Citizens, Kruzich, the Chevron spokesperson, said the company’s employees “meet regularly with local residents to answer questions about refinery operations and safeguards. … We have also developed a rapid-response protocol and notification system for residents to report nuisance odors to the refinery, for refinery teams to quickly assess the complaint, and to then conduct real-time community air quality monitoring when our initial assessment supports it.” He declined to provide any details about the monitoring results.
The Concerned Citizens got their hopes up when VT Halter applied to renew its air permit last year. They thought they might be able to influence the MDEQ to include extra air monitoring requirements, or maybe even reject the application. “We are not environmental expert,” retail worker Duyen Tran and her husband Quy wrote to the agency. “We are not rich” enough “to do air (water or soil) test every day. … We have suffer health impact much more than enough for human’s physical strength. We need help to be out of this dilemma.”
The Trans had kept odor logs back in 2014, and Duyen was grateful that her job took her away from the subdivision’s contaminated air for most of the week. To make herself feel safer, she filled her home with plants recommended for improving indoor air quality, including foxtail ferns and peace lilies. She wants a buyout so her family can move somewhere safe.
Residents were devastated when they learned that MDEQ renewed VT Halter’s permit without additional requirements. The Concerned Citizens’ only remaining option is to sue, and the group doesn’t have the resources for that. Robert Wiygul, an attorney at the local law firm Waltzer Wiygul Garside, said his efforts to help them have stalled due to the costs of air monitoring and other technical work needed to bring a case to court — work that would essentially duplicate what regulators ought to be doing anyway, he said.
Weckesser summed up her frustrations in a November 2020 letter to MDEQ. “Depression has set in because DEQ doesn’t seem to get our message about what it is like to have to live here,” she wrote in looping cursive. She put it more bluntly in an interview with ProPublica: “I’ve felt weary and I’ve felt a struggle, and it’s like, Why in the world won’t you SOBs pay attention to us?”
This April, rumors swirled that the EPA’s mobile air monitoring van was in town taking samples. Carol Kemker, director of enforcement and compliance assurance at the EPA regional office that oversees Mississippi, said that the agency brought the van over from Denver as part of a focused effort to investigate emissions in the area. The monitor took samples at and near local polluters, including VT Halter and Chevron’s refinery. In late summer, the agency used more advanced tools to look for leaks and pinpoint sources of emissions, Kemker said. (This further investigation occurred after ProPublica began asking state and federal regulators about the toxic hot spot revealed in our analysis.)
Kemker called Pascagoula one of the “top areas” she is now focused on, selected because of the persistent complaints, the scope of industrial polluters in the area and the proximity of neighborhoods to these facilities. “We’ve heard the community. We’re really trying to do a very thorough investigation,” Kemker said, adding that MDEQ was “a very willing partner” to conduct joint investigations.
Enck said the EPA’s investigation is an encouraging sign. When the agency puts its resources into a community, “it can be a catalyst for change,” she said. “But the trick is getting them in there. … It shouldn’t be so hit-or-miss.”
EPA’s southeast regional office has 25 employees in the air enforcement branch responsible for eight states, Kemker said. “We have pulled resources from across the country to aid in this investigation, and my desire is for us to get the answers as quickly as possible.”
Results from the monitoring and leak detection are pending. But Weckesser may not stick around to see them. She owns a second home in Kentucky, where she once planned to spend half of each year, but which she has only visited intermittently because of her activism work in Pascagoula. Now she’s considering a permanent move. Her husband has kidney problems and a lung condition called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Weckesser worries there will be no one to take care of him if her health declines, too. “I want to get the hell out of here,” she said, adding that she wishes she could take her neighbors with her. “I don’t want to leave them behind.
“My worst fear is that half this subdivision or more is going to end up with a serious illness or die,” she said. “And no one is going to acknowledge or recognize that it was from industry.”