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  October 17, 2016

Who are the 'Superpolluters'?

Center for Public Integrity's Jamie Smith Hopkins discusses a study that took a close look at the major emitters of toxic fumes and greenhouse gases
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Jamie Smith Hopkins covers environmental and worker health for the Center for Public Integrity. Before joining that nonprofit newsroom in 2014, she spent 15 years as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.


KIM BROWN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore.

A new study from the Center for Public Integrity shows just how highly concentrated industrial air pollution is in the US and just how few industrial sites are largely responsible. Some are calling the sites most responsible, super polluters.

Now joining us to discuss these super polluters and their impact is Jamie Smith Hopkins. Jamie covers environmental and worker’s health for the Center for Public Integrity. Before joining that nonprofit newsroom in 2014, she spent 15 years as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

Jamie thank you so much for joining us.

JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS: Thanks for having me on.

BROWN: Jamie your study notes that 22 sites are counted both on the list of the highest toxic emitters and the highest emitters of greenhouse gases. Sites like Exxon Mobil’s Baytown, Texas refinery and the petrochemical complex, First Energies West Virginia Coal Power Plant. If the EPA already keeps record of the highest emitters of greenhouse gases and the highest emitters of toxic fumes, why was it necessary to do a whole study to find which sites are on both lists? Could you just do a simple cross reference?

HOPKINS: I wish it were that simple. So part of the issue was we weren’t just looking at the biggest. We wanted to understand the toxic air emissions and the greenhouse gas emissions from all facilities that report to both programs. These actually aren’t the worst of the list that the EPA keeps. They’re trying to understand the emissions from all sorts of facilities across the United States including some that don’t put out very much stuff at all. So these two data sets that they keep are called the toxic [inaud.] inventory and the greenhouse gas reporting program. In both cases thousands of facilities are required to report their emissions. So what we found is that the problem here is that trying to connect these two things that work well because they just weren’t designed to talk to each other, these two data sets.

For instance, you’d have this situation where a facility that actually reports to both would have one ID number and one dataset and then a totally different ID number and the other dataset and the name of the facility would be a little different in both as well. So we needed some way to connect those because obviously trying to figure out for more than 20,000 facilities, well is it on this list? Is it on the other list as well? One by one would have just taken a very long time. So what we ended up figuring out is that by connecting to a third dataset the EPA keeps, we could better connect these facilities up. We spent a lot of time sort of checking the connections to make sure it really is the same facility, dealing with problems like the facility reports in pieces to one program but the entire complex in the other. So we were dealing with that kind of stuff and sort of the grunt work of data analysis before we’d get to the point of saying okay, so what’s the big picture.

BROWN: So where did the EPA derive the data for its list of worst emitters and who collected this data and are there measures of accountability in place to assure its accuracy?

HOPKINS: That’s a really good question. In this case, both programs are company reported information. The upside of that the companies aren’t going to contest the information because they supplied it. Very occasionally we’ll have a situation where the company just messed up in their reporting but generally the companies say yup that’s what we reported. The downside is that you don’t have independent third party come in and measure and say okay this is what we found. So as you can guess there are opportunities for under reporting.

So we what companies do generally is that they’re usually either using air monitors to track this stuff or they’re using things called emissions factors to calculate them. For instance, the EPA lays out how to calculate your greenhouse gas emissions if you’re burning say a ton of propane or a ton of natural gas or a specific kind of coal because that all differs. You can sort of use that, plug it in, say this is what we’re burning plus our emissions.

BROWN: So what kinds of health risks are posed to those who live near these super polluting sites and who is most effected by these risks?

HOPKINS: Well, for toxic air emissions it depends on what’s coming out. So what we did is we looked at the one hundred largest emitters. Found that 95% of what they reported pumping out has known health risks and these are chemicals, gases, metals, that can harm the lungs, the brain, and other parts of the body including developing fetuses and young children. So some of these emissions can travel for hundreds of miles and so they could have effects on air people are breathing in entirely different states. But in general it’s the people who are closer to these facilities that are the most likely to actually breath this stuff in.

In the case of greenhouse gases, they’re posing essentially an indirect health risk because they’re by warming in the climate they’re changing the he world that we live in. So it ends up effecting health in some surprising ways that we don’t necessarily think about. It might be sort of obviously that it’s a health risk to be in the middle of a flood for instance. But heat poses health risk. Lengthy policies in that research has already come with a warmer world contributes to worse allergy and asthma symptoms and of course asthma can have lethal health effects. People aren’t able to keep it under control.

BROWN: Jamie your article notes that four of these super polluters are coal plants clustered around Evansville, Indiana. Indiana is one of 27 states that is suing the EPA over the Clean Power Plan. This is coming under the leadership of Governor and Republican VP nominee Mike Pence. So why are they doing so and what kinds of regulations and protections would the Clean Power Plan provide and how would they effect the super polluters that you’ve mentioned?

HOPKINS: So the Clean Power Plan would require reductions in greenhouse gas pollution from electric utilities. Of the one hundred facilities that made the most greenhouse gas, the [inaud.] are power plants. That’s what our analysis found. So people throw around the term wawr on coal. This is definitely one of the flash points because by requiring greenhouse gas reductions, the Clean Power Plan would press utilities to reduce your use of coal for making electricity because other options produce less greenhouse gases or in some cases, no greenhouse gases.

So this is not a situation where if the Clean Power Plan ultimately takes effect, any specific power plant would have to close or convert to say natural gas. This is a case where utilities and states are supposed to be figuring out how to make this work. So they would presumably have some ability to say well this plant we want to keep going as it is and this plant we’re going to think about doing in some other way. Maybe we’re going to close this plant or part of this plant and do more solar or wind or natural gas. But this is all sort of if the plan does take effect because right now it’s being heard by federal court and people presume that ultimately it’s going to go to the Supreme Court.

BROWN: So what actions have the super polluting countries like Exxon, like First Energy, and NRG actually taking to prevent the regulations that the Clean Power Plan would impose?

HOPKINS: So the Clean Power Plan refers to, would affect power plants. So this is not something that is really going to be adventurous to a facility run by say Exxon. But some of the entities that are suing over the Clean Power Plan are utilities. Some are utility groups. Of course there’s a whole bunch of states. So some utilities are sort of directly getting involved. Some are sort of indirectly getting involved. The utility trade group in Indiana was applauding the state for suing over this and some utilities are saying they want to see the Clean Power Plan happen. It’s definitely a split.

BROWN: We’ve been speaking with Jamie Smith Hopkins. Jamie covers environmental and workers health issues for the Center for Public Integrity. There’s a new report on their site about super polluters, the biggest greenhouse gas and toxic fumes emitters that are concentrated in a relatively small handful of areas. Jamie we appreciate your time today. Thanks a lot.

HOPKINS: And thank you for watching the Real News Network.


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