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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

A little over a year ago, we brought you a series called Poisoned Places. It was about neighborhoods living with industrial air pollution. Well, this week, we take up that series again and start with a community living right in the middle of Baton Rouge. Their next-door neighbor is the nation's second largest oil refinery owned by ExxonMobil.

SIEGEL: Recently, some of the people living around the 104-year-old complex got a closer look at the shape it's in. In some places, not good. And what they learned highlights a larger truth, that refineries and petrochemical plants are getting away with polluting far more than the government allows them to.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren recently visited the community of Standard Heights, where toxic pollution has become a part of everyday life.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: The ExxonMobil complex in Baton Rouge is as big as 250 Superdomes. There's a refinery and a cluster of petrochemical plants.

Sidney and Almena Poray live a block from its south gate. They've been here 20 years in a little house with a big front porch. And these days, they've got toddler toys in their driveway.

SIDNEY PORAY: I got my grandkids here right now and two daughters.

(LAUGHTER)

PORAY: You know?

SHOGREN: If you stand in front of their place and look straight down the street, you see at least a dozen plumes of white and gray exhaust.

Almena Poray chimes in.

ALMENA PORAY: That's something you see every day. The same thing, if not more. Sometimes it'd be a darker gray. Sometimes it'd be black smoke coming out.

SHOGREN: The government gives Exxon permission to pump out thousands of tons of air pollution each year. Neighbors in Standard Heights say it was really bad one day last summer.

Tonga Nolan remembers the morning of June 14th.

TONGA NOLAN: My daughter woke up out of her sleep vomiting really bad.

SHOGREN: Ernest Gordon says he couldn't take it.

ERNEST GORDON: Me and my family, we left and rode to the country because we thought something was going to happen.

SHOGREN: It turns out there was a big accident at the plant. Chemicals were spilling out of a tank and turning into toxic vapor. And it just so happens on the day of that big accident, a couple of EPA staffers were in the neighborhood. One place they stopped was Almena Poray's. They wanted to know what it was like living so close to Exxon. They asked her, do you ever hear from Exxon? Do they ever tell you when there's a problem?

So, these EPA staffers...

PORAY: Israel and Charlotte, I believe.

SHOGREN: ...they got up to leave.

PORAY: Mm-hmm.

SHOGREN: Almena Poray opened up the back door and this horrible smell hit them.

PORAY: And they took off.

SHOGREN: So you were talking to them and - these people from the EPA - and they said, oh, we got to go. Really?

PORAY: Yeah.

SHOGREN: So why did they run?

PORAY: Because the smell was so bad. The smell was just so bad.

SHOGREN: How did that make you feel? They are the people from the Environmental Protection Agency running for their cars?

PORAY: Yeah, they were running to their car. I was like, you know, I told them, I said, this is what we deal with all the time, you know, and they were like...

SHOGREN: One of the EPA staffers, Israel Anderson, says he doesn't recall a bad smell outside the Poray's house. But he does remember an odor near Exxon that day. Exxon told authorities that it had spilled some nasty chemicals including benzene and toluene. These are known as VOCs, volatile organic compounds. Breathing in enough benzene and toluene over a short time can cause headaches, dizziness and vomiting. Breathing in benzene routinely can cause cancer in workers. But Exxon also said there was no need to worry.

Standard Heights resident Larry Alexander remembers checking the news.

LARRY ALEXANDER: I heard it through the television that it was only a minor leak and it was under control.

SHOGREN: The TV told Standard Heights a different story a week later.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We're learning more about a chemical leak at the ExxonMobil plant from last week. In fact, the leak containing benzene is turning out to be much larger than originally thought.

SHOGREN: That's a report from WAFB local television news. Exxon now says it released a lot of toxic chemicals, including 31,000 pounds of benzene.

Neighbors like Larry Alexander say they feel lied to.

ALEXANDER: Well, every time I look at the plant, that big plant, I see skull and crossbones.

SHOGREN: Accidental spills like this one and leaky old equipment are part of why plants are putting out way more pollution than they're supposed to. State data from Texas and Louisiana, where about half of the country's refineries are, back this up. From 2008 to 2011, refineries and chemical plants in Louisiana reported releasing an extra 7 million pounds of volatile organic compounds.

These VOCs cause smog and can make people sick. More than half of that 7 million pounds came from ExxonMobil Baton Rouge. Over the same four years, refineries and chemical plants in Texas put out 30 million pounds of this same sort of excess pollution.

Last summer, the EPA sent an inspector unannounced to ExxonMobil Baton Rouge. The EPA won't talk with NPR about what it found because it's still deciding whether to charge Exxon with violations. But the inspection report is public.

Anna Hrybyk is an environmentalist from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. She pried the report out of the EPA using the Freedom of Information Act. And as soon as she got it, Hrybyk went to Standard Heights to show Exxon's neighbors what it's like inside the refinery.

ANNA HRYBYK: Can I show you something, Mr. Sidney?

PORAY: Mm-hmm.

SHOGREN: Hrybyk catches up with Sidney Poray.

HRYBYK: In this report, look. The best part is they have these pictures and it's of all the corrosion and the rust. And this one has a picture of - the hand valves are so corroded that the workers cover them with duct tape and garbage bag.

SHOGREN: The report describes serious accidents that Exxon failed to report to the EPA, pervasive corrosion, pipes so worn out that big sections have sloughed off, pipes that burst or leaked when workers inspected them. And these aren't pipes that carry water. These are pipes that carry toxic liquids and gases.

Environmentalist Anna Hrybyk leans in and tells Sidney Poray one more thing.

HRYBYK: You saw that they are going to expand.

PORAY: Who, Exxon?

HRYBYK: Another 8 acres.

PORAY: When you expand, everything got to be brought up to date.

HRYBYK: That's the thing.

PORAY: You got the money to expand, but you can't get this here up to date? Come on.

SHOGREN: Exxon refused repeated requests to do a recorded interview with NPR. In response to emailed questions, Exxon wrote, quote, "With respect to our operations, it is definitely safe to live in the Standard Heights community."

The company says it tests the air quality outside its boundaries. And even on the day of the big accident last June, it didn't find unhealthy levels of any toxic chemicals. Quote, "Neighbors did not need to take action because there was no evidence of any impact to the community."

Exxon stresses that it spends tens of millions of dollars a year to inspect and maintain its equipment.

Chris John is the president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. He says plants are concerned about their air pollution. They're working on this, especially emissions from accidental spills and leaks.

CHRIS JOHN: They're down by 41 percent since 2008. And more than that, you know, we want it to be better than that.

SHOGREN: Already, there are fewer bad air days in Louisiana than there used to be. Texas too. But some engineers who study refineries say the problem is still much worse than the industry or even the government admit.

ALEX CUCLIS: It's been a long frustrating journey, that's for sure.

SHOGREN: That's chemical engineer Alex Cuclis. He spent 15 years working at a refinery and now does research on the industry's air pollution for the independent Houston Advanced Research Center. Actually, Cuclis says, the plants don't really know how much pollution they pump out. That's because the plants make a few direct measurements, but mostly they estimate their pollution.

CUCLIS: If you're not measuring, you're just guessing.

SHOGREN: When scientists measure the pollution, they find refineries are pumping out seven to 10 times more, on average, than they tell the government.

CUCLIS: Some companies will, you know, deny that they're not reporting the right amount. But all the studies we have in Houston and those that they've done in Europe seem to show the same thing, that emissions are substantially higher.

SHOGREN: So it sounds like it's basically like the emperor wears no clothes. The companies and the EPA know that they are not accurately reporting how much pollution they're sending into the air, but they don't do anything about it.

CUCLIS: That's true.

SHOGREN: Cuclis has tried, repeatedly, to work with refineries, but they tell him, no thanks. Five months ago, the EPA asked 17 Gulf Coast refineries and chemical plants to participate in a voluntary program to reduce pollution. Exxon refused, so did the other companies.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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