Oklahoma Town Battles Powdery Carbon Pollution After 726 formal complaints, a union lockout, protests and lawsuits and settlements totaling about $20 million, residents in Ponca City no longer have daily struggles with carbon black.
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Oklahoma Town Battles Powdery Carbon Pollution

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Oklahoma Town Battles Powdery Carbon Pollution

Oklahoma Town Battles Powdery Carbon Pollution

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


And I'm Guy Raz.

And we begin this hour with a join investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. It found weak enforcement of the Clean Air Act. There are currently more than 1,600 plants in the U.S. labeled high priority violators. Of those, the EPA keeps 400 facilities on a watch list.

We're going to take you now to one community located downwind from one of these polluters. It's in Ponca City, Oklahoma, where hundreds of people spent nearly two decades trying to get regulators to protect them.

NPR's Howard Berkes has their story for our series, "Poison Places."

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: This is a story about people taking matters into their own hands when regulators seemed unwilling or unable to help them.

JESSE BECK: Almost all the homes have little children. Almost all the children had lung problems.

BERKES: Jesse Beck pulls his flatbed truck off the highway outside Ponca City, Oklahoma, and onto a grassy field framed by tall leafy trees. Beck is the environmental manager for the Ponca Indian tribe and this is where 11 Ponca families once lived.

BECK: Anytime we tried to contact the company, they would essentially refer us to a lawyer. It was not a friendly relationship at all.

BERKES: The company is Continental Carbon and it sits just across railroad tracks and a chain-link fence in a maze of smoke stacks, tanks and pipes. The plant produces a fine powder called carbon black, which is used to strengthen tires and other rubber products. It's also a potential carcinogen and can cause heart and lung problems. None of it is supposed to get beyond the fence.

DENNIS HETU: Well, everything they found is consistent with mold, consistent with soot, consistent with diesel exhaust fumes.

BERKES: Dennis Hetu is Continental Carbon's president. He just joined the company seven months ago, so he missed the 18 years with more than 700 formal complaints against his Oklahoma plant. NPR and the Center for Public Integrity reviewed those complaints. Jeffrey Lieb lived closest to the plant for 30 years.

JEFFREY LIEB: So my children grew up having to put up with carbon black. They have asthma. My grandchildren, when they'd come out and play, we'd throw their shoes away. It would get on their clothes. It'd get on our dog.

BERKES: Karen Howe moved in more than 20 years ago. Her daughter Angela had the toughest time.

KAREN HOWE: She rode her bike inside the house with training wheels because of carbon black.

BERKES: The black dust seemed to aggravate Angela's allergies so she watched from a window as other kids played outside.

ANGELA HOWE: Sometimes I thought it was unfair. And they're all outside having fun and I'm inside just alone.

BERKES: Why did you stay there?

K. HOWE: I had no place else to go. We were minimum-wage people, workers, and it was a home.

BERKES: The black powder drifted a mile to the west to the farm of Wilma and Wally Schatz.

WILMA SCHATZ: We was breathing that stuff. It was just covering us up. And it was just day in and day out.

BERKES: Did you complain to the State Department of Environmental Quality?

WILMA SCHATZ: Oh, we have been up here so many times, the environmental guys, you know. And they would go over there and investigate, you know, and then...

WALLY SCHATZ: That's as far as it went.

BERKES: You mean, nothing resulted from your complaints.

WALLY SCHATZ: No, not one - nothing.

BERKES: And even three miles away in downtown Ponca City in 2005, the mayor at the time was getting calls about school playgrounds, houses and cars tainted black. Richard Stone found the substance outside city hall on a treasured fountain on the plaza and a bronze statue of a homesteader on horseback.

RICHARD STONE: Which is a very expensive piece of statuary. And you could rub your hand across here and you'd come up and it'd be just black. The same thing is true with our fountain and you'd rub your hands along the windowsills and it's going to be black.

BERKES: Continental Carbon sometimes sent out cleaning crews. But throughout the entire 18-year ordeal, it continued to deny that its Oklahoma plant was the problem. Again, company president Dennis Hetu.

HETU: I can't explain what was occurring and why they were calling, but I can tell you that all of the testing that was done showed that it was not engineered carbon. Whether it was mold or whether it was mildew or whether it was soot, it was not engineered carbon in 99 percent of the cases.

BERKES: NPR and the Center for Public Integrity sought those test results, but the company says they're part of sealed court documents and cannot be released. Hetu takes me on a tour of the plant in a golf cart pointing out 10 blue tanks that look like grain silos, each containing filters designed to capture and hold carbon black.

HETU: We have to collect all of those dust particles and we collect them to the tune of several hundred thousand pounds a day. If it gets out, then we're not selling that material to anybody.

BERKES: Continental Carbon spent $10 million, Hetu says, to make that process more efficient. But he does acknowledge mishaps at times in which leaks occur. And when they do, linking the residue downwind to the carbon black plant...

BECK: It's almost impossible to prove.

BERKES: Says the Ponca tribe's Jesse Back.

BECK: As soon as that black enters the atmosphere, it starts being changed by the atmosphere to where it's not chemically the exact same as the stuff that's in the plant.

BERKES: Carbon black particles adhere to mold, dust and animal hair, according to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality so they don't test as pure engineered carbon black. DEQ, by the way, had a nearly impossible standard for strong responses to complaints. The agency declined NPR's repeated request for interviews, but its approach was explained in 2005 by spokeswoman Monty Elder on the public radio program, LIVING ON EARTH.

MONTY ELDER: If people called and said, there's dust coming off the plant, we would have to send someone to the facility, and they would have to physically see the dust coming off the facility. And depending on weather conditions and depending on how close the local DEQ office was to that facility to get there, we may or may not have seen dust coming off.

BERKES: In fact, many of the complaints reviewed by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity reported clouds of dust escaping the plant at night and on weekends. But state inspectors went out in daylight and often days later. They repeatedly found exposed piles of carbon black at and outside the plant and residue at homes downwind. But in 2003, the state was so overwhelmed by complaints, it suddenly stopped responding. Soon there were more complaints than ever. Karen Howe.

K. HOWE: They're supposed to protect people. They're supposed to act on these violations of these bigger companies that put out this pollution. And right down to it, they didn't care, or something would have been done.

BERKES: The Environmental Protection Agency was called in because EPA is supposed to make sure Oklahoma regulators enforce the federal Clean Air Act. But the agency simply deferred back to the state. EPA also declined interview requests for this story, citing an ongoing but unspecified federal enforcement investigation involving Continental Carbon.

K. HOWE: It just continued to get worse and worse and worse. So finally, we put our feet down and then that's it. That's it.

BERKES: So the Ponca tribe aligned with union workers at the plant who were involved in a long labor dispute over benefits. They were locked out in 2001. The tribe gained access to inside information from union chief Dave Westerman who has worked 30 years at Continental Carbon.

DAVE WESTERMAN: The company likes to do a lot of temporary patches. Temporary patches don't hold.

BERKES: And filters break, storage bags leak.

WESTERMAN: There's many ways that black goes into the atmosphere, so that chain-link fence isn't holding anything in.

BERKES: The union gained a powerful issue and tactic. It could embarrass the company as a major polluter and it staged an international campaign. Environmental consultant Rick Abraham was hired to bring the union, the tribe and the farmers together.

RICK ABRAHAM: I dig up the dirt on polluters, and clearly there were problems. They were documented in the agency's files, and yet these problems continued for years.

BERKES: There was a sit-in a state offices, a camp-out at the state capital and a march to the plant. There was even a trip to Taiwan complete with a hunger strike for a 2004 stockholders meeting of Continental Carbon's Taiwanese owner. Ponca tribal official Dan Jones brought back stunning photographs of the company's carbon black plant in Taiwan.

DAN JONES: It's beautiful. It's clean. They have gardens throughout the thing. There's no fugitive emissions at all. And when I came back, you know, and saw the condition the state government was allowing and the federal government was allowing this plant to be ran on American soil, my reaction was shut it down until you can run it like the plant that's being ran in Taiwan.

BERKES: Pressure built on the company and the state, which decided to respond to complaints again and to stage surprise inspections. By the end of the year, Continental Carbon ended the union lockout but complaints continued to pour in. Fed up, the city, the tribe, the farmers and others downwind hauled the company into court with filing lawsuits. Former Mayor Richard Stone.

I felt very strongly that we needed to take a strong stand on getting it taken care of. We're not going to let anybody pollute our city in such a way that we're harming our citizens.

In 2005, Continental Carbon lost a similar lawsuit involving its plant in Alabama and paid out close to $20 million. Settlements soon began in the Ponca City cases, reaching another $20 million combined. The last settlement was just two years ago. The company did not admit wrongdoing, notes Dennis Hetu.

HETU: We chose to make a community-based decision to rather than to fight it and litigate it for years and years and years, we chose to pursue a closure so that we can move on as a community partner.

BECK: I would say it's cleaner now. These streaks that you see along the railroad tracks were much darker and much bigger back five, six years ago.

BERKES: The Ponca Tribe's Jesse Beck stands where 11 brick Ponca homes once stood, where 11 families once struggled with a substance, a company and state and federal regulators who were supposed to protect them. Continental Carbon bought out and tore down their homes. Some neighboring farmers also sold and negotiations continue with others. Complaints are way down. There were only six last year. Karen Howe moved to the other side of Ponca City where she now embraces a normal life.

K. HOWE: And I'm just glad that the kids are out of that pollution and living somewhere else where they can ride their bike in the clean air. You know, and sweat normal sweat. And if they get dirty, then they have dirty knees, not black knees.

BERKES: The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality says, in written statements, that it spent considerable time and resources investigating complaints. It bolstered inspections when complaints increased. It eventually decided to take strong action, even if inspectors did not see carbon black leaving the plant. And it levied a total of $25,000 in fines.

But it took more than 10 years, 700 formal complaints, a union lockout, sit-ins and protests in Oklahoma and Taiwan, and lawsuits and settlements of close to $20 million.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.


RAZ: Our story was produced by Sandra Bartlett. At npr.org, you can find more from our "Poisoned Places" series including an interactive map to identify polluters where you live, their regulatory track record and potential health risks.


SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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