Toxic Profit: Meet the Top Super Polluters in the US

DowDuPont tops the list of the biggest air and water polluters in the country, according to PERI’s new Toxic 100 index. Researcher Michael Ash breaks down the report

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The annual Toxic 100 reports produced by Professor Michael Ash and Professor Jim Boyce at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are an assessment of which corporations release the most toxic pollutants into our environment. Last week, we interviewed Michael Ash about the Greenhouse 100 Index, and we thought we’d have him back today to discuss the other indexes outlining who are the biggest air and water polluters in the country as well as the combined indexes that they have produced. Michael Ash is professors of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Good to have you back, Michael.

MICHAEL ASH: Thanks, Sharmini, for having me on.

SHARMINI PERIES: Michael, as I said, last week we talked about the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the US who surprisingly turned out to be electric companies who burn fossil fuel. Today, let’s talk about your other indexes starting with the Toxic Air Polluters Index.

MICHAEL ASH: So, the Toxic Air Polluters Index, unlike the Greenhouse Gas Index, is looking at industrial releases of very toxic material. Obviously, greenhouse gases pose a global threat. The toxics that we track through this index are more focused on local pollutants, pollutants that have their maximum impact 2, 3, 5, 15 miles from the facility where they’re released. They’re really high toxicity local pollutants. They do a lot of potential local damage around the facility as these facilities produce for largely national markets.

SHARMINI PERIES: Michael, let’s take one of these groups like Zachry Group or even DowDuPont and break down the kind of toxins they release and the potential impacts it has our health.

MICHAEL ASH: Sure. Let’s talk about DowDuPont because it’s probably better known to many of your listeners. So, DowDuPont, if you take a look at the top of their list of facilities, and again, for those of you visiting that website, which I do recommend, you can click right on the words DowDuPont and you’ll get a map of their facilities, literally a map. You can see where the facilities are located and then also you get a map of the types of chemicals that the facilities are emitting. So, the top chemical for DowDuPont is released in Louisiana at their…plant, a DowDuPont facility in LaPlace, Louisiana. Chloroprene, which is involved in the production of neoprene, is one of the top chemicals that’s released at that facility.

SHARMINI PERIES: Okay. Now, the other issue you index is really the water pollutants in our water supply. Tell us about how you went about collecting that information and then what are the most alarming things about our water supply that we should know.

MICHAEL ASH: Topping the water supply list, DowDuPont is actually the number one company on the Toxic 100 Water Polluters Index. Anyone who visits the website toxic100.org can choose to look at air polluters, water polluters, or greenhouse gas polluters, or we now have a new list that combines all three. It’s possible to track which companies appear on all three lists. DowDuPont is at the top of the water polluter list. They are then followed by a large number of electrical producers. Production of electricity and particularly the burning of fossil fuels like coal is very likely to top highly toxic pollution lists, both because there’s a lot of chemical produced and because fairly toxic chemicals come out of the burning of coal. So, around the top of the water polluter list with DowDuPont is American Electric Power, Honeywell International Southern Company, AES Corporation. These are, again, large either chemical or electrical producing companies. I think, again, it’s very important to visit the lists to get a full picture of which chemicals are being produced and how many people are impacted.

SHARMINI PERIES: Speaking of people, Michael, of course this begs the question, who’s living in these toxic facility areas and the impact it has on people’s health and well being?

MICHAEL ASH: Thanks, it’s a great question. One of the most important parts of our list, particularly something that we research very heavily at Political Economy Research Institute here at University of Massachusetts is the sharing, shall we say, the sharing of this burden that these companies release very toxic chemicals into the environment. That’s what economists call an externalization of their costs. They don’t have to pay for releasing those chemicals. That’s like getting a piece of the production process for free. Companies have to pay the workers who work, they have to pay the suppliers who bring the inputs, they have to pay the trucks that take the products away, but they don’t need to pay for releasing the toxic byproducts of their production into the environment. They’re externalizing this.

So, we might want to ask, why don’t they have to pay? One reason that companies may not have to pay is because they select vulnerable populations or they impact vulnerable populations who are downwind, effectively, from their facilities. So, our methodology makes it possible to take a look at what fraction of the burden from these facilities, what fraction of the total population health risk from these facilities falls on poor people, people living below the federal poverty line, and falls on minorities, people of color who in this country in the United States are disproportionately likely to be the recipients of environmental injustice.

So, our list, and again, I encourage your visitors to take a look at toxic100.org, makes it possible to look at what fraction of the burden of these releases of industrial toxic releases fall upon poor people and people of color. It’s interesting, people of color and minorities make up about 39% of the US population. 8 of the top 10 companies on the list have substantially more than 39% of their impact falling on minorities. If the output was fairly shared across vulnerable and less vulnerable communities, you’d expect minorities to make up about 39% of the burden. As I said, for 8 of the 10 top companies on the list, minorities make up more like 50% to 70% of the burden. Just to pick a company, number six, TMS International Corporation, has 72% of its burden falls on minority populations. Outside the top 10 at number 11, ExxonMobil has nearly 70% of its burden falling on minority populations. That means that the faculties that these plants have located, and in particular the plumes from these facilities, are disproportionately likely to affect these vulnerable communities.

SHARMINI PERIES: So, in this case, how can these indexes be used to facilitate how communities cope with it and how we should help address this problem?

MICHAEL ASH: That’s a great question. By the way, I should mention that all of the data that we present is based on data collection by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The US Environmental Protection Agency has a right to know commitment that is enshrined in law so that people in the United States have the right to know what toxics they’re being exposed to. We’re trying to help users of these data convert the right to know into actually exercising a right to clean air and clean water, something that’s enshrined in many state constitutions. We picture many users.

One possible user are actually regulators themselves. In many cases, the state Environmental Protection Agencies don’t know what are the top important facilities in their states to focus on. The data that we present can actually be a tool for regulators to identify areas of concern, industries of concern, companies of concern, faculties of concern. It can be helpful, again, because we report on a company basis. It could be helpful to group facilities and to the companies that own them…So, you might start to see patterns of companies that produce a lot of toxics, release a lot of toxics and disproportionately expose vulnerable populations. We picture regulators actually as one of the potential users, it’s interesting to think about these data leaving EPA, and thank goodness we have EPA to produce these data, and then returning to EPA to give guidance on where to enforce.

We also picture socially responsible investors. There may be many investors who’d like to make sure that the funds that they’re providing to companies are going to produce salutary effect. They’re going to produce the types of goods and services that provide health and well being for large swaths of the population. So, these investors may be concerned about pollution coming from the facilities from the companies in which they invest. We very much want investors to be aware of the potential chronic human health impact of the companies in which they’re considering investment. And that concern is all the greater, of course, when you think about vulnerable communities who are downwind. In addition to regulators, we think about socially responsible investors as a user of these data.

And we also think about citizens and activists. Communities may well know about the facilities that they’re downwind from. They may have been active for years working on those facilities. Our analysis of the data makes it possible for communities to form common cause with each other. Because we group up to the level of the parent entity or the corporation, communities can figure out that they’re not the only ones who are downwind from this company and its many facilities. It makes it possible for communities to find each other and make a common cause, again, to identify patterns that there may be companies that have a widespread record of producing and releasing a lot of toxics, and in particular finding those toxics finding their way into vulnerable populations. So, we think about that tripartite set of potential users of the Toxic 100 data, again, regulators, investors, and community activists, and other stakeholders.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Michael, now looking at all of your indexes from air, greenhouse gas to water and these toxic elements combined in your Environmental Justice Report Card, it shows that a company’s pollution burden on minority and low income communities is disproportion across the country, but also specific to certain companies. So, who are they?

MICHAEL ASH: The companies that are high on all of the lists, and again, this is the first time we’ve offered a combined list that let people take a look at the toxic air dimension, at the toxic water dimension and at the greenhouse gas dimension at the same time. So, if you take a look at the top of those lists, you’ll see there are a set of companies that appear high on all three lists. DowDuPont is a large toxic air releaser, large toxic water releaser and a large greenhouse gas releaser. Berkshire Hathaway is similarly high on all three lists. ExxonMobil is high on all three lists. Koch Industries is high on all three lists. So, again, I think it’s helpful to your viewers if they go and visit the data at toxic100.org and they can take a look at whether high toxic releasers are also high greenhouse gas releasers, are also companies that have a particularly high share of their burden falling on minority communities or on low income communities.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Michael. I thank you again for joining us and continuing this conversation with us.

MICHAEL ASH: Thanks so much, Sharmini. It was a pleasure to discuss it with you.

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s an important report, and we urge everyone to go and have a look and as Michael said, to click on the information so it exposes which communities are most affected in order to determine how your environment might be affected by pollutants in the air, or water, or the combined toxins that Michael talks about. I thank you so much for joining us here on The Real News Network.