Mapping the West ... in air polluters

 

If you happen to glance over the fantastic air pollution investigation jointly released by National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity this week (along with a handful of other cooperating media outlets that did regional stories), you might think to yourself: "Thank (insert deity here) I don't live in the Midwest, East or Southeast," (provided, of course, that you don't). Conversely, you might think: "Hey... the West has been the rest of the country's dumping ground for all sorts of crap, but apparently even our most populous state (California) doesn't have nearly as many folks pumping nastiness into the air as the other aforementioned regions!"

The media outlets pulled an enormous amount of data from the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory to put together this handy interactive map of where industries are releasing toxic materials into the air and how much of a health risk those releases represent. Seriously, it's like looking at one of those satellite photos of the U.S. at night, with the Eastern half of the country all aglow and the West appearing mostly as a big empty space with a few bright blips of megalopoli in the Interior and along the coastline:

NPR's "Poisoned Places" map shows industries that filed Toxic Release reports with the EPA; darker dots show releases of the most concern to human health, lighter dots show releases of the least concern. Click on the map to view the interactive version at NPR.org

A closer look at a combined July and September "watch list" that the news outlets managed to squeeze out of the EPA --  which "includes serious or chronic violators of the (Clean Air Act) that have faced no formal enforcement action for many months," according to  NPR -- reveals much the same picture at a finer resolution, and with some trends you might expect given our region's major polluting industries. Some highlights:

  • Fewer than 10 percent of the 464 listees are in one of the 11 Western states or Alaska.
  • More than a third of those in the West were in California, our most populous, urban and probably most industrialized state.
  • Nearly half of the Western watch-list polluters were involved with oil and gas, with eight in California (at least half of those are oil refineries), one in Alaska, six in the gasfields of northwest and southwest Colorado, four within 25 miles of Vernal, Utah (a longtime hotspot for oil and gas pollution), and one refinery in Montana.
  • Mining and cement producers were the next most prominent industries on the list, but were FAAAAR fewer in number, with three (two Freeport McMoran facilities in Arizona and Barrick Goldstrike in Nevada) and four respectively.

There were also some pretty random-seeming folks on the list: Ernest and Julio Gallo in Cali? Really? Trouble is, it's impossible to tell from the list itself why each facility is on it, because the EPA didn't release that info. But in general, explains NPR,"Polluters on the list may ... for example, have failed to adhere to a state or federal order, or to obtain a permit. Emissions of hazardous pollutants may have been too high."

Of course, given that we're dealing with a huge bureaucracy and an endless spectrum of things to be monitored, there are also plenty of caveats:  "Facilities may appear for other reasons (too) ..." NPR goes on."For instance, enforcement officials may be tracking ... compliance with a court order. A company in negotiations with authorities might be on the list. ...Violations may have been alleged but not proven. There also may be data errors." Not to mention, adds CPI, that "the list may exclude facilities that deserve to be on it."

If there's an additional underlying takehome message for the entire West from this investigation, beyond that we apparently have relatively fewer Clean Air Act violators (probably in large part because we just have fewer people) and that oil and gas is a pretty dirty biz, I think it goes something like this:

These data show violations and pollution releases under various current clean air rules. That's not quite the same as mapping out where the dangerous air pollution actually is, since existing rules often aren't as protective of human health as you might hope. You might recall this unrelated but relevant fact, for example: Up until recently, the Obama administration was (backslidingly) fighting an uphill battle to significantly tighten rules limiting ozone pollution -- which causes and exacerbates all sorts of respiratory ailments. EPA chief Lisa Jackson has even called the existing ozone rules "legally indefensible" because they don't go far enough to protect people. Here's what the West would have looked like under the more protective ozone rules EPA was considering up until it abandoned them this fall. This map shows counties whose air would violate the maximum levels of ozone that the agency's scientists have recommended, and in it, the West comes out looking a lot less rosy than it did in that Toxic Release map:

Counties whose ozone levels would be in violation of the range of standards that were recommended by the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and then abandoned. Dark blue shows which ones would be in violation under the least restrictive standard in that range, light blue, additional counties that would be in violation under the most restrictive standard in that range.

Admittedly, I'm veering off on a tangent here -- I understand that comparing the two maps is like comparing apples to oranges -- but I think this ozone map is worth considering alongside the data from NPR and CPI as you listen to the relentless (and, in my opinion, baffling) pre-2012 election drumbeat of "jobs jobs jobs" at all costs, which House Republicans have aimed squarely at efforts to better protect innocent people from air pollution. Ask yourself: what do you want from your government? Or more specifically, what do you want your map of the West to look like in, say, 20 years? Would it appear devoid of major polluters and pollution because the agency charged with protecting people from industry's byproducts adopted weaker standards? Or because that agency took a stand and the region had cleaner air, for real?

Sarah Gilman is High Country News associate editor.