Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Poisoned Places, even in California


A few words, after the fact, about the NPR series that aired last week, Poisoned Places. The stories about these places were told well, and they were sufficiently shocking. Thinking about what was reported naturally made me interested in what wasn't covered in the reports.

NPR and the Center for Public Integrity obtained an internal EPA watch list via FOIA and combined it with other publicly available information, including the Toxics Release Inventory, in order to highlight holes in government enforcement. "A secret government ‘watch list’ underscores how much government knows about the threat — and how little it has done to address it," the project statement says, somewhat dramatically.

NPR's efforts to make the importance of that information clear underscores its complexity. A map attached to the series used colored dots and "scores of one to five smoke stacks … based on an EPA method of assessing potential health risk in airborne toxins from a given facility" to represent risk. The pop-up boxes link to enforcement and compliance reports. (I wish the connection between the colors and the reports were clearer but you can't have everything, I guess.)

Howard Berkes visited Tonawanda, New York, to report on how people there have fought air quality problems related to an industrial facility called Tonawanda Coke. A comment he got from a regional EPA official, Judith A. Enck, reflects a reality that you can find anywhere in the country.

"If this was in an affluent city where thousands of people lived, I think there would have been more of a laserlike focus on this earlier," Enck says.
She offers a larger lesson from the experience in Tonawanda: Communities get cleaner air when they dig in their heels and demand it.

This in and of itself isn't news. As of 1970, the Clean Air Act included a citizens' suit provision, like civil rights laws did. The plain truth is that built into this law and into other environmental laws, we've long imagined that the government might need a little bit of external public pressure to enforce laws it had on the books has been floating around for a long time.

Of course, it IS news that the government's doing a spectacularly bad job of it in Tonowanda and other places. Less than 10 percent of those places on the EPA watch list are in the Far West. But it's the dots in southern California offer a sort of "hit list" to other groups that bring citizens suits, not to mention regional air regulators. 

Southern California's got three that I'm interested in as a result of the map: Tamco Steel in Rancho Cucamonga; CalPortland Cement Company in Mojave; and TXI Riverside Cement in Oro Grande. That doesn't seem like that many. Are we seeing an upside to the disappearance of manufacturing? Were other potential polluters shoved not just over California's border with Nevada or Oregon, but into Mexico, too?