By John O’Grady
Industry is poisoning our communities by releasing pollutants to our air, water and soil in subtle and mysterious ways, which are often almost impossible to trace. EPA scientists, engineers and lawyers must catch and stop the culprits.
If you are living in a community that is exposed to airborne toxins, EPA may be all there is between you and grave health dangers. The Trump administration’s plan to “reshape” its federal workforce by removing half of EPA’s scientists, engineers and lawyers is leaving communities defenseless to the designs of industrial polluters.
For example, take this tale of two cities that faced perilous health risks and were defended by EPA. The first is East Liverpool, Ohio, a mile east of the Pennsylvania border. The second is Chicago, Illinois. What do they have in common? A company called S.H. Bell.
EPA scientists caught and stopped S.H. Bell from poisoning people in both towns with harmful levels of a neurotoxin called manganese. EPA inspections confirmed what residents feared all along, that facilities cannot be trusted to reliably control their toxic metal dust, which has long-lasting and irreversible public health risks.
Tucked along the Ohio River, East Liverpool is home to just over 10,000 people, an attractive location for industrial operations. Residents suspected dirty air was caused by WTI Industries, a hazardous waste incinerator in town. But S.H. Bell, a 92-acre site located closer to the state border, attracted little notice until 2014, when an air monitor registered very high amounts of airborne manganese.
We need only small quantities of the mineral manganese to survive. A neurotoxin that can damage the nervous system, prolonged exposure by inhalation of airborne manganese impairs movement, memory, judgment and reasoning. It also causes a horrible illness known as manganism, a neurological disorder that causes your limbs to shake, much like Parkinson’s Disease. Aavailable human and animal toxicity studies on manganese showed that a minimal risk level for chronic manganese inhalation exposure is 0.3 micrograms manganese per cubic meter.
For over a year, the monitors in East Liverpool showed levels of manganese more than the chronic health standard. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency did nothing to address the toxic dust registering on the monitors.
EPA’s staff of lawyers, engineers and scientists who specialize in analyzing just these kinds of circumstances stepped in and traced the source of the manganese to the S.H. Bell Company. Its manganese dust was migrating into the community, into homes, businesses and hospitals, poisoning the residents.
Children in North Elementary School and East Liverpool Junior/Senior High School were exposed to dangerous levels of respirable manganese daily. Soon afterwards, EPA discovered cases of manganism in the community.
There is a happy ending in East Liverpool due to the hard work of EPA. There was no conventional EPA air emission standard for manganese because it was not common nor widespread enough to regulate.
The scientists and lawyers turned to the little-used but extremely important Section 303 of the Clean Air Act, a provision meant to protect people against emergency health threats causing immediate harm to a community.
EPA sued S.H. Bell for presenting an imminent and substantial endangerment to the East Liverpool community. In 2016, S.H. Bell was forced to stop manganese pollution and to install controls to reduce emissions to safe levels. In 2017-18, for the first time in four years, the manganese exposure is declining and returning to safe levels.
If the Trump administration has its way, this type of protection will no longer exist. The large team of scientists and engineers with specialized expertise in monitoring air deposition and respiration of pollutants can only be found within the EPA.
This workforce has the muscle to detect, chase down and require large companies with deep pockets to stop polluting. That expertise is being depleted by the Trump administration at a time when the pathways of pollution by industry is more and more complex and elusive.
Further west, in Chicago, as the East Liverpool case was reaching its height, another monitor showed a low level of manganese migrating from off-site.
Southeast Chicago hugs the Lake Michigan shoreline just north of the Indiana border.
The Calumet River flows through the community, which is much more densely populated than East Liverpool, with 10,000 people living in a five-mile radius. The population, low-income and diverse, is designated as an “environmental justice” community, deserving of more attention by EPA because of the disparate impact of pollution there.
In 2014, low levels of manganese were detected in Southeast Chicago and while the concentrations were not high enough to pose the health threat found in East Liverpool, they were concerning enough for EPA to investigate.
Scientists traced the airborne source across the Calumet River to a S.H. Bell facility. Acting quickly, EPA protected the community from any health threat by issuing an order requiring close monitoring of the manganese at this site.
After a court battle, EPA ordered the installation of monitors at S.H. Bell. While those monitors were operational in March 2016, five months later, EPA found violations of the Clean Air Act when the data showed manganese exceeded the chronic health standard, just as in East Liverpool. With EPA’s enforcement, the company has since complied, and airborne emissions have remained below the toxic standard.
A real success story, on March 1, 2018, the City of Chicago introduced an new ordinance that restricts manganese operations within city limits, banning any new handling facilities and limiting the expansion of existing manganese sites in Chicago.
This White House’s plan to drastically reduce the number of EPA scientists, engineers and lawyers, welcomes with open arms those polluters, previously busted by federal regulators. EPA’s brain drain will intentionally dismantle the agency, leaving industry unabated to profit at any cost. EPA scientists and engineers are the only defenders standing between you and indifferent emitters. We must keep our protectors at EPA.