Who Are the Worst Air Polluters in the U.S.? The 'Toxic 100' List Announced

Published on September 25th, 2012 | by

September 25th, 2012 by


We know they’re out there, silently and ceaselessly dumping and pumping toxins into our air, water, and land.  Still, it’s hard for the average citizen to keep track of the worst of them. Polluters never sleep.

Concerned citizens will feel more secure knowing that at least one form of pollution — air pollution — is the subject of a much anticipated ranking: the 4th annual ‘Toxic 100 Air Polluters’ list.

Each year, economists at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, announce the ‘toxic 100’ — a list of the “worst of the worst” corporate air polluters. The rankings are compiled on the basis of several factors: the toxicity of the pollution, smokestack size, prevailing winds, the number of people exposed to the pollution, and other metrics.

A Look at the Data Sources for the Toxic 100 List

Data on chemical releases come from the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), which is a widely cited data source. However, the inventory is limited in that it does not reflect differences in toxicity (some toxins are million of times more toxic than others) nor the total number of people impacted by a given form or source of pollution. Also, the TRI is reported on a facility-by-facility basis and does not combine, for example, multiple plants owned by the same company.

To overcome these limitations and provide more accurate and revealing metrics, the Toxic 100 authors use the EPA’s 2007 Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI). The RSEI data includes toxicity weights, fate-and-transport modeling, and population exposure — in addition to the TRI data. This combinatorial approach used by the PERI researchers yields a more comprehensive view of the health risks and impacts from industrial air pollution.


Tracking Environmental Injustice

The list also tracks ‘environmental injustice’, a metric based upon the share of pollution exposure borne by minority and low-income communities — those least able to exert influence over the polluter or afford treatment for the negative health impacts of exposure. As an example, the researchers note that 69% of the health risk from pollution generated by ExxonMobil is borne by minority communities — while they comprise just 40% of the overall population.

The ‘toxic 100’ list is not simply a means to publicly call out or embarrass the polluters. According to list authors, Michael Ash and James K. Boyce, the rankings are an important tool for corporate management and investors.

The Cost of Pollution — Looking Deeper at “Externalities”

Pollution, after all, is waste, and waste in the industrial process adds to the cost of doing business and the cost of health care. Gone are the days when various forms of waste were labeled as “externalities” and considered inconsequential to the industry or to people’s health.

Not all such externalities are costs — some are benefits — but when we speak of pollution and its health impacts, these externalities have costly consequences.

These costly externalities commonly fall on those who are not directly participating in the economic “transaction.” These are the people who live downwind (or downstream) of the oil refinery or chemical plant whose end-products are consumed many miles, or hundreds of miles, away. As millions purchase the same product, such as gasoline, those near the refinery experience the impact of the increased pollution resulting from refinement.

Then there is the pollution which we all experience in the form of smog due to so many cars and trucks being on the road.

Health Risks

To economists, air pollution is viewed always as a cost, not a gain, in the economic equation. And most of this cost is to public health in the form of increased risk of neurological damage, cancer, birth defects, and respiratory illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control has estimated that the health costs of treating respiratory illnesses caused or worsened by coal-fire plant pollution alone is $4 billion per year.

To read a more in-depth interview with the toxic 100 authors, check out the Truth Out article Economists Identify the 100 Top Air Polluters and Highlight the Economics of Environmentalism.

More and more economists are working at the intersection of economics and environmentalism, compiling data on how this pollution impacts real communities. This information can have significant impact on the marketplace by helping companies reduce emissions and avoid costly inspections and financial penalties by regulators.

It’s about time that the true and hidden costs of industrial pollution are being revealed. So long as the lists prompt changes in the relevant industry (not forgetting the power of corporate lobbying on Congress to delay tougher environmental laws) then we all potentially benefit.

The Toxic 100: Top 10

For the full list and for past lists, follow this link to the Political Economy Reserach Institute.

Top Photo: Before flue-gas desulfurization was installed, the emissions from this power plant in New Mexico  contained excessive amounts of sulfur dioxide (source: wikipedia.org)

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