STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's follow up now on the effects of a move by the U.S. government 21 years ago. That's when Congress strengthened the Clean Air Act, setting up a system to reduce toxic chemicals in the air. NPR's joint investigation with the Center for Public Integrity found that industrial facilities still put out high concentrations of hazardous air pollution in many communities. The Environmental Protection Agency even keeps a secret list to track offenders. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has this first story in our series: Poisoned Places.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman helped write the 1990 law. He says the country as a whole has made progress on reducing toxic pollution, but not enough.
CONGRESSMAN HENRY WAXMAN: I don't think it's a great deal of comfort to tell somebody whose kids may develop brain damage or the adults in the neighborhood that may get cancer, that overall, we're reducing toxic air pollutants. That doesn't help them.
SHOGREN: What will help, he says, is if industries stop poisoning communities with chemicals like benzene, formaldehyde and mercury. The problem is, in too many cases, they still haven't. And state and federal regulators haven't forced them to.
NPR and CPI's investigation shows that air pollution violations at 1,600 plants across the country are serious enough that the government believes they require urgent action. Yet nearly 300 of them have been high priority violators for at least a decade. Cynthia Giles heads the EPA's enforcement office. She concedes it's a work in progress.
CYNTHIA GILES: It certainly is still true, that there are places in the country that are over burdened with toxic pollution.
SHOGREN: Seven years ago, the EPA was under pressure for not being tough enough on chronic polluters. It created a confidential watch list to manage the problem. When regulators don't crack down within nine months of learning that a facility is breaking the rules, the facility pops onto the watch list.
GRANT NAKAYAMA: Some of them are likely the worst of the worst. But some may be on there because they just were not in compliance but their violation may not have been that significant, environmentally, or from a human health standpoint.
SHOGREN: Grant Nakayama headed EPA's enforcements for the Bush administration. He says one reason the government made the list secret is it didn't want to tip off companies that are being criminally investigated.
NAKAYAMA: There are also violators out there who are, you know, really interested in gaming the system, beating the system and anything that gives them forewarning, I think, would not be helpful.
SHOGREN: The agency released its most recent watch list to NPR and the Center for Public Integrity in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The September list includes 383 power plants, refineries, chemical plants and other industrial facilities. Half of those plants are in six states: Ohio, Texas, Illinois, Louisiana, Wisconsin and Indiana. One Ohio facility on the watch list is a coal-fired power plant near Cleveland. GenOn's Avon Lake plant is one of the biggest toxic polluters on the list. Bruce Nilles is a Sierra Club lawyer.
BRUCE NILLES: It's been chugging along, putting out very, very large amounts of pollution.
SHOGREN: The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency says the plant is complying with its air pollution rules. But in June, the EPA launched an enforcement action against Avon Lake. The agency accuses the plant of violating its permit by not installing modern pollution controls when it was updated.
A company spokesman says GenOn disagrees, but refused to record an interview. Nilles says political pressure from industries and budget woes keep many states from enforcing air pollution laws.
NILLES: It's a classic example that we see across the country, where the states have not stepped in and said wait a minute, this power plant either needs to shut down or clean up.
SHOGREN: Tension between the EPA and some states often get in the way of timely enforcement. Richard Alonso says that was a big reason why the agency needed the watch list. He's a corporate lawyer who used to lead the EPA's pollution enforcement against facilities. States rely on companies to provide jobs and tax revenue.
So, Alonso says it's not surprising that some states balk when the federal government wants them to force companies to spend millions of dollars on pollution controls.
RICHARD ALONSO: The will to take on certain industries may not be there.
SHOGREN: The EPA is planning to start publishing its watch list sometime later this year.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.
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INSKEEP: And you can find more on our Poisoned Places series at npr.org. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.