'Super Polluters' Under the Microscope

Matthew Freeman

Sept. 30, 2016

In a story published yesterday, the Center for Public Integrity takes a deep dive into the public health impact of the nation’s “super polluters,” a collection of industrial polluters that account for an outsized share of toxic air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Produced in collaboration with USA Today and The Weather Channel, the story focuses in on Evansville, Indiana, a city of 120,000 nestled in the southwest corner of the state and ringed by no fewer than seven coal-fired power plants within 30 miles. According to the story, they collectively pump out millions of pounds of toxic air pollution and emit greenhouse gases comparable to those produced by Hong Kong.

At the heart of CPI’s piece is an Information Age equivalent of shoe-leather journalism: the Center merged data from two EPA datasets – the Toxics Release Inventory and the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program – and identified the nation’s top 100 polluting industrial complexes for toxics and greenhouse gases, respectively. Comparing the two lists, they note that 21 facilities are on both, and four are among those surrounding Evansville.

From there, the story goes on to paint a powerfully specific picture of the health implications, including the tale of a 12-year-old Evansville asthma patient who died from an acute attack on a day in which fine particle pollution and sulfur dioxide pollution spiked. His mother said the boy’s doctors never warned her of any problem associated with air pollution. The only explanation she says she got for the cause of his fatal asthma attack was that it might have been related to a spike in pollen.

The efforts of Indiana Governor Mike Pence to protect the coal industry from efforts to rein in its pollution also get a close look, including the decision to join the lawsuit to derail the Clean Power Plan that was argued before the D.C. Circuit earlier this week. Meanwhile, Pence gets credit for killing the state’s alternative energy programs that flourished under his predecessor and doing nothing to plan for the impacts of climate change.

CPR’s Thomas McGarity and Sidney Shapiro are both quoted in the story, as are a host of environmental experts and some coal defenders. In that latter category, the accompanying 12-minute video includes a former Bush administration EPA official, now a lawyer for coal industry clients, who decries the so-called “war on coal,” only to be shot down by a New York University School of Medicine professor who dismisses it as “corporate victim-playing. This is something abusers do; they claim they’re the victims…when in fact they’re the ones that are causing the damage.”

The story and the video are both worth a few minutes of your time. In the video, note the swooping crane shot just over four minutes in, starting with a ground-level view of a cemetery. As the camera rises, you see a family visiting a grave, then power lines a few hundred yards beyond, then a train with a number of coal cars, and finally a collection of belching smokestacks in the distance. There’s the story.

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