Inside Public Integrity

Published — May 31, 2013 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Award-winning Center series looks at toxic, sometimes hidden chemical releases


In case you missed this last week, the Center for Public Integrity’s environmental reporting team produced another groundbreaking investigation in our award-winning “Poisoned Places” series.

Our latest story is about the often toxic, sometimes hidden releases emanating from oil refineries, chemical plants and other industrial facilities along the chemical corridor of the Louisiana and Texas Gulf Coast. Those unplanned emissions — known in regulatory parlance as “upsets” — are occurring more often than industry admits or government knows, according to interviews with regulators, activists, plant representatives, workers and residents, and an analysis of tens of thousands of records by the Center for Public Integrity.

Starting in 2011 and in collaboration with NPR, the Center has been looking into the toxic air we breathe, and how insidious forms of toxic air pollution persist in many parts of the United States. More than two decades ago, Democrats and Republicans together sought to protect Americans from nearly 200 dangerous chemicals in the air by passing a series of amendments to the Clean Air Act. That goal remains unfulfilled. Today, hundreds of communities are still exposed to the pollutants, which can cause cancer, birth defects and other health issues.

Take a look at some of these key findings from our latest report on accidental emissions (which NPR is also reporting on this week):

  • The “upsets,” often occur when equipment breaks down or other “unavoidable” mishaps occur. The Center found that these are happening more often than government reports reflect, adversely affecting residents living near industry.
  • Over the last five years in Texas alone, the nation’s refinery hub, accidental emissions have yielded almost four million pounds of some of the most toxic air pollutants.
  • From 2007-2011, the largest refinery and chemical facilities across Texas spewed almost 180 million pounds of accidental emissions. That represents additional contamination on top of the 14.8 billion pounds of routine air emissions.
  • Frequently, state regulators — the primary enforcers of the Clean Air Act — fail to investigate thousands of reports of accidental emissions. And even if regulators do act, offenders are rarely punished.
  • Pollution from accidental emissions is likely even greater than this data suggests. Regulators rely on an honor system which companies easily exploit.

For decades, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state regulatory agencies have effectively ignored these accidental emissions. Officials don’t count such “upsets” in facility permits and compliance records because they simply aren’t supposed to happen. That means industrial facilities can get away with releasing more pollution than allowed by the federal Clean Air Act — with few or no repercussions. These incidents skirt normal pollution controls, venting through flares and leaks. Plants can have scores of events per year, giving off a constant cloud of invisible spoliation. As a former official in Houston with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality told the Center, “A big dose of toxins [is] coming out of these facilities and into fence line communities.”

Look for more of our reports on Poisoned Places in the months ahead. And if you want to know the major pollution sources near where you live, then visit our interactive national map, and put in your zip code, to see information on local pollution sources.

Until Next week,


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