November 7, 2011
Anna Christopher, NPR




NPR News and the Center for Public Integrity are making public for the first time an internal EPA watch list that includes serious or chronic Clean Air Act violators that have faced no formal enforcement action for months, as part of a joint investigation by the two organizations into "Poisoned Places" across the country. Twenty-one years after Congress sought to control air emission of nearly 200 highly toxic chemicals, NPR and the Center have found that regulators are struggling to protect hundreds of U.S. communities from the pollutants, which can cause cancer, birth defects and other serious health problems.

"Poisoned Places" begins today at the Center's iWatch News and on NPR, which is airing four reports this week on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. and have also released an interactive map identifying more than 17,000 facilities across the country that may emit harmful chemicals into the air. The map also groups communities by EPA health risk scores, so users can see how these facilities may be affecting them.

NPR member stations in 10 states – including StateImpact Texas and StateImpact Pennsylvania, part of a collaboration among NPR and stations to examine issues of local importance – are also reporting regional versions of this investigation. More stories from the Center, NPR and stations will follow in the weeks to come.

Among the key findings:

· State and federal regulators take months and sometimes years to enforce anti-pollution rules. About 400 facilities are on an internal EPA watch list that includes serious or chronic Clean Air Act violators that have not been subject to timely enforcement. The list was obtained by NPR and the Center and is being made public for the first time.

· More than 1,600 polluters around the country are classified by the EPA as "high priority violators" of the Clean Air Act – sites in need of urgent action by enforcers. Nearly 300 have had this designation for at least a decade.

· Regulators largely rely on an honor system easily manipulated by polluters, which report their own emissions. Even judging by the self-reported numbers, the scale of pollution is enormous: at least 600 million pounds of toxic chemicals – including arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde and lead – were released into the air in 2009, according to EPA data.

· Shrinking state budgets, politics and a failure by the federal government to spend as much as the Clean Air Act contemplated have hampered enforcement. Billions of federal dollars have not been directed to state environmental agencies.

· In some communities, citizens have stepped in where government has faltered, suing polluters and testing the air themselves to document hazards.

The investigation focuses on communities in 10 states hard hit by pollution from industrial operations such as a corn processing plant, a paper mill and a smelter. In Ponca City, OK, a substance known as carbon black became a ubiquitous presence, coating pets, cars and picnic tables. In Chanute, KS, a cement plant burns toxic waste without the same emission standards that apply to hazardous waste incinerators. And, until sick residents near Tonawanda, NY, tested their own air and demanded stricter regulation, a coke plant was spewing benzene, which can cause cancer, at levels 30 times higher than it was reporting to the EPA. Reporters from the Center also examined communities in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Texas and Louisiana.

"Poisoned Places" is a joint investigation from NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. The NPR series is produced and reported by correspondents Howard Berkes and Elizabeth Shogren, producer Sandra Bartlett, and data reporter Robert Benincasa. The Center's team includes Jim Morris, Chris Hamby, Ronnie Green, Emma Schwartz, Kristen Lombardi, and Elizabeth Lucas.

All text and broadcast excerpts from NPR must be credited to "NPR News"; all information from iWatch News must credit the "Center for Public Integrity." Broadcast outlets may use up to sixty (60) consecutive seconds of audio from NPR’s reports, and parts or all of video mini-documentaries produced by the Center.


The NPR News Investigative Unit crosses all news desks and programs to build upon, and strengthen the commitment to, NPR’s established investigative work. The team’s extensive reporting includes Post Mortem, exploring why many suspicious deaths are improperly investigated; Brain Wars, an ongoing examination of traumatic brain injury and the military; and Native Foster Care, chronicling inequalities in the South Dakota foster care system for Native Americans. NPR reaches a growing audience of more than 27 million listeners weekly; to find local stations and broadcast times for NPR programs, visit

The Center for Public Integrity, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, and independent digital news organization specializing in original investigative journalism on significant public policy issues. Since 1990, the Washington, D.C.-based Center has released more than 485 investigative reports and 17 books to provide greater transparency and accountability of government and other institutions. It has received the George Polk Award and more than 50 other major journalism awards, including honors from Investigative Reporters and Editors, Online News Association, Overseas Press Club, Society of Environmental Journalists, and Society of Professional Journalists.