EPA Administrator Promises Reforms To Address Industrial Air Pollution “Hot Spots”

Report found systemic failings in EPA's air pollution monitoring programs

Following a high-profile report by the investigative journalists at ProPublica, which highlighted a number of “hot spots” for industrial air pollution throughout the U.S., the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has vowed to make changes to the way air pollution is monitored and regulated.

According to a follow-up story published by ProPublica on November 24, the promises were made by EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan, who has begun visiting “hot spots” highlighted in the original report.

The original ProPublica investigation was released on November 2, providing a first-of-its-kind analysis of industrial air pollution throughout the U.S., and detailing more than 1,000 toxic air pollution hot spots across the country. While about a quarter of the locations were in Texas, many others dotted the country; including the controversial location known as Cancer Alley; an area along the Mississippi River.

An estimated 74 million US residents are being exposed to levels of pollution that exceed EPA safe limits, according to the report. In addition, exposure to air pollution from industrial plants increases the risk of cancer for more than a quarter million Americans, the report found.

The findings suggested the EPA is not doing enough to monitor and regulate risk, especially for Black residents who face a disproportionate risk due to environmental justice issues, where industry and corporations take advantage of minority communities’ lack of legal and political resources to build highly polluting facilities in their neighborhoods. In census tracts where the majority of residents are Black, the risk of cancer from toxic air pollution is more than double the risk compared to majority-white tracts.

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Two days after the report was published, Regan announced he and other EPA officials would visit the communities featured in the reporting. The EPA group toured the Houston ship channel, the Louisiana community of Mossville and the area along the Mississippi River known as Cancer Alley. These are places identified in the report as the largest hot spots of toxic air pollution in the country.

Many longtime residents believed it was the first time top environmental regulators visited these areas.

EPA Monitoring Flaws

The ProPublica investigation exposed what investigators said were flaws in how the EPA regulates industrial pollutant producers and fails to protect vulnerable neighborhoods. Now, Regan says the EPA is considering how to tackle industrial air pollution across the country.

The EPA now indicates it will incorporate the ProPublica report and its pollution monitoring methodology into the revised system the agency is considering to address the air pollution issues, including setting pollution standards and enforcing existing laws.

Furthermore, EPA national and regional offices discussed plans to examine local hot spots identified by ProPublica’s investigation.

The tour focused on how the EPA estimates the danger of environmental pollutants, which residents and environmental critics warn is inefficient in calculating the true danger to many communities. Polluting facilities are monitored and considered in isolation from one another, meaning the overall cumulative risk is not being calculated.

Regan was also asked if the EPA will consider establishing new thresholds for acceptable cancer risks, as the current standards are not sufficient enough and do not protect many residents.

“The honest answer is we have to reevaluate the way we’ve been approaching diagnosing these problems,” Regan said. “If EPA, the federal government, state governments and local governments had been doing things correctly, we wouldn’t be here. There’s obviously a problem with the way we have implemented our laws and, quite frankly, there may be a problem with the existing law. We need to determine whether even existing law, if followed, is protective enough.”


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