A documentary produced by The Weather Channel and The Center for Public Integrity about the concentration of toxic air releases at a small number of facilities in the United States. The Weather Channel and the Center for Public Integrity
Editor’s Note: This story was produced as part of a collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity, The Weather Channel and the USA TODAY Network.
DTE Energy’s vast, coal-fired power plant in Monroe — one of the largest in the country — ranks 11th nationally for most greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere, according to findings from a nine-month Center for Public Integrity investigation of “super polluters” across the U.S.
The Monroe plant does far better nationally when it comes to toxic air releases, ranking 140th nationally.
The investigation found that industrial air pollution — bad for people’s health, bad for the planet — is strikingly concentrated in America among a small number of facilities. The Center, which merged two federal datasets to create an unprecedented picture of air emissions, found that a third of the toxic air releases in 2014 from power plants, factories and other facilities came from just 100 complexes out of more than 20,000 reporting to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
A third of the greenhouse-gas emissions reported by industrial sites came from just 100, too.
DTE officials cite significant improvements in air pollution in recent years, stemming from multi-billion-dollar investments in control technology . But the processes that make air cleaner can create toxin-laced wastewater that’s finding its way to Lake Erie. DTE released more arsenic into Lake Erie than any other coal-fired power plant in the country into any other waterway, its 2015 federal data shows.
Despite those releases, however, DTE is in compliance with all federal and state emissions and discharges regulations, including at its Monroe plant, a company official said. That facility and other DTE power plants have even been designated “Clean Corporate Citizens” by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
But particularly in Michigan’s industrialized southeast, air pollution from all sources has led to undeniable, negative health effects, especially for children, the elderly, and those already sick, studies show. And research shows those most on the front lines of super polluters tend to be poor and African-American.
Southern Michigan is far from alone. In Evansville, Ind.,seven coal-fired power plants operate within 30 miles of the city.
Collectively they pump out millions of pounds of toxic air pollution. They throw off greenhouse gases on par with Hong Kong or Sweden.
In the Center’s investigation, 22 sites appeared on both greenhouse gas emission and toxic releases lists. They include ExxonMobil’s massive refinery and petrochemical complex in Baytown, Texas, and a slew of coal-fired power plants, from FirstEnergy’s Harrison in West Virginia to Conemaugh in Pennsylvania, owned by companies including NRG Energy and PSEG. Four are in a single region — southwest Indiana. Together, owners of these 22 sites reported profits in excess of $58 billion in 2014.
Thomas O. McGarity, a law professor and regulatory scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, said the Center’s findings show that “a lot of the problem is isolated, and what we need to do is focus in on these plants.”
The EPA says it’s doing that. In a written statement to the Center, the agency said its sustained emphasis on the electric power sector has led to “dramatically” lower emissions from power plants since 1990 — “while the U.S. economy has continued to grow” — and it is working to get further improvements.
But not all the states are on board. Michigan and 26 other states are suing the EPA over its Clean Power Plan, which would require reductions in climate-altering greenhouse-gas pollution from electric utilities. Michigan is also among the states that tried to block a federal rule to reduce emissions of dangerous metals and acid gases from coal- and oil-fired power plants. Indiana is also among those states, and its governor, Mike Pence — Donald Trump’s running mate — is a pro-coal, climate-change skeptic who says the costs of shifting to cleaner energy sources are too high.
Maintaining the status quo has costs as well: bad air that threatens health and fuels global warming. More toxic pollution from utility coal plants was sent into the air within 30 miles of Evansville than around any other mid-sized or large American city in 2014, a Center analysis shows. That same 30-mile radius accounted for the most greenhouse gases released by U.S. coal plants that year around any city.
Across the country, the top 100 facilities releasing greenhouse gases — almost all of them coal plants — collectively added more than a billion metric tons to the atmosphere in 2014. That’s the equivalent of a year’s worth of such emissions from 219 million passenger vehicles — nearly twice as many as the total number registered nationwide.
The top 100 for toxic air emissions vented more than 270 million pounds of chemicals in 2014. The vast majority of these chemicals have known health risks, according to the EPA; they can target the lungs, the brain or other organs, and some can affect the development of children born and unborn.
Eight of the super polluters have closed. The rest, including all four in Indiana, still operate.
Tina Dearing, 48, of Huntingburg, Indiana, was unexpectedly widowed in March when her 57-year-old husband died of a heart attack. Coronary artery disease, the death certificate says. Two months later, researchers published the results of a 10-year study that showed why previous investigations kept finding shorter lifespans in areas with poorer air quality: pollution appears to accelerate harmful deposits in the arteries that cause nearly all heart attacks and most strokes.
Dearing’s family lives northeast of Evansville in a community within 30 miles of two of Indiana’s largest coal plants. She knows a variety of factors can play a role in an early death, but believes dirty air contributed in her husband’s case.
“The air quality stinks,” she said.
The Center, which relied on the EPA’s most recent final Toxics Release Inventory data to track total chemical releases, found that the people who live within three miles of the top 100 polluters are in some ways a cross-section of America: spread across half the states, all races, young and old, in a wide range of income brackets.
But more of them are poor or African-American than the country as a whole, data from the U.S. Census Bureau show — a situation familiar to residents of what researchers call the most polluted ZIP Code in Michigan, 48217, which includes the Boynton and Oakwood Heights neighborhoods of Southeast Detroit.
A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study released earlier this year found Detroit’s 12.4% juvenile asthma rate the highest among America’s 18 largest cities. Detroit’s pediatric asthma hospitalization rate is four times greater than the Healthy People 2010 target rate, a federal public health initiative.
The correlation between poor African-Americans and proximity to polluters is found elsewhere in the country as well. Nearly 90% of the thousands living within three miles of ExxonMobil’s refinery and chemical plant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, are black and about a third are below the poverty line. The complex, which ExxonMobil said has reduced total emissions over 40% since 1990, released more than 2.6 million pounds of chemicals to the air in 2014, including hydrogen cyanide — which can cause headaches, confusion and nausea — and known carcinogens such as benzene.
Mary B. Collins with the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and two other researchers found similar disparities in a sophisticated analysis this year, writing that “there exists a class of hyper-polluters — the worst-of-the-worst — that disproportionately expose communities of color and low income populations to chemical releases.”
While people nearby are the most affected, these facilities can degrade air far afield. Almost all the states with top toxic-air emitters send a significant amount of pollution to downwind states, according to EPA analyses — in some cases reaching people hundreds of miles away.
Some of the companies that own the nation’s biggest polluters say their emissions break no rules and are simply a reflection of a facility’s size. Others point out that they’ve ratcheted down releases in recent years, including after 2014.
DTE Energy has experienced decreases in toxic air releases over the last six years at its Monroe plant, credited to the $2 billion installation of catalytic pollution reduction and flue gas desulfurization equipment in recent years, spokesman Brian Corbett said. DTE and Michigan’s other large power utility, Consumers Energy, are also closing a number of older, less efficient coal plants, replacing them with natural gas-fueled generation, along with some wind and solar energy projects. But DTE’s biggest power generator, its coal-fired Monroe plant, isn’t on that future closure list.
“DTE has cut emissions by 50% in the last 10 years, and 2015 emissions reportable under the TRI (Toxics Release Inventory) were down 54% from 2014,” Corbett said.
DTE’s Monroe plant ranks far lower on the national super polluter list for toxic releases than for greenhouse gases, ranking 140th nationally for emissions of toxic air chemicals and metals.
Overall, Michigan’s toxic release air emissions decreased 34% from 2010 to 2014, to just over 18 million pounds, federal data shows.
But improved cleaning of air releases at coal-fired power plants leads to increased water pollution discharges, as the “scrubbers” used to clean air in smokestacks often produce a wet sludge and wastewater that ends up in lakes and rivers. DTE’s Monroe plant released more toxic arsenic into Lake Erie — 1,800 pounds, nearly a ton — than any other coal-fired power plant in the nation into a waterway, according to its self-reported data to the EPA, the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project found. Federal law requires public water systems to keep arsenic levels below 10 parts per billion to avoid cancer risks.
DTE was also in the top 10 of all coal-fired power plants nationwide in the amount of mercury it released into Lake Erie, at 28 pounds, the Environmental Integrity Project found via the utility’s self-reported federal data. While that seems a small amount, mercury is considered so toxic, sewer systems require industries to keep levels in their wastewater releases below 0.0002 parts per million. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has a statewide fish advisory that calls for limiting consumption of 15 different types of fish due to their potentially health-harming mercury concentrations.
“Mercury doesn’t go away — once it gets in the water, there’s no getting it out,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former director of civil enforcement at EPA.
All DTE plants are in full compliance with all state and federal emissions and discharge regulations, Corbett said, adding that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had given DTE’s power plants “Clean Corporate Citizen” designations. It means the regulator found they “have demonstrated environmental stewardship and a strong environmental ethic through their operations in Michigan,” according to the DEQ’s website.
Despite changes in the power industry, coal is far from dead in America. And the tug-of-war over the future of electric power generation will affect everyone, some more than others. The influential utility industry. Blue-collar energy workers, from coal miners to solar-panel installers. Neighbors of coal plants. Electricity customers. People suffering from the lengthening pollen season, dangerous heat waves, devastating floods and other effects of global warming.
Detroit Free Press reporter Keith Matheny contributed to this report. Hopkins reported this story with the support of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and the National Fellowship, programs of the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism. Center for Public Integrity news developer Chris Zubak-Skees also contributed to this story.