Series: Sacrifice Zones Mapping Cancer-Causing Industrial Air Pollution ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. The white ranch house in Pascagoula, Mississippi, was supposed to be Barbara Weckesser’s retirement plan. In 2010, it was getting harder for the real estate agent and her husband to climb the stairs of their home on Dauphin Island, Alabama. She imagined a quiet existence of gardening and puttering around her porch. The Cherokee Forest subdivision seemed like just the place to do it. Rabbits wandered the lawns among the dozens of modest homes built in the 1960s and ’70s; families stayed put for decades. The ranch was a fixer-upper, so the couple tackled it together, installing drywall and hanging up new doors and cabinets. ProPublica Read More The EPA Administrator Visited Cancer-Causing Air Pollution Hot Spots Highlighted by ProPublica and Promised Reforms Then came the dust. Weckesser, who was 64 at the time, first saw it after she left a window open one fall day in 2011 and black soot settled onto her new kitchen countertops. “I said, ‘Holy hell, what in the world is this?’” She later found a grayish film on her black car. She knew it wasn’t pollen because it felt gritty, like sand. Her first guess was that it was coming from VT Halter Marine, a shipbuilder located 800 feet away that was undergoing repairs to fix damage from Hurricane Katrina. The site later became the scene of constant painting, sandblasting and welding, as workers rushed to fulfill contracts with the Navy and Coast Guard. VT Halter Marine, a shipbuilder in Pascagoula that holds contracts with the Navy and Coast Guard. Months passed and the dust kept falling in Pascagoula — more than she had ever witnessed growing up near Kentucky’s coal fields. Weckesser got headaches from chemical odors and wondered if it was safe to eat the tomatoes she’d planted. Fed up, she found a number for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, the state agency charged with ensuring clean air. It had issued operating permits to the shipbuilder and a dozen other major industrial facilities nearby, including a huge Chevron oil refinery and a chemical plant. She wanted the regulators to find out where the noxious fumes were coming from. ProPublica Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Thanks for signing up. If you like our stories, mind sharing this with a friend? https://www.propublica.org/newsletters/the-big-story?source=www.propublica.org&placement=share®ion=national Copy link For more ways to keep up, be sure to check out the rest of our newsletters. See All Fact-based, independent journalism is needed now more than ever. Donate When she called MDEQ in March 2012 about a “welding gas” smell that left a metallic taste in her mouth, it took four days for an inspector to drive by the shipyard. The inspector noted strong odors and a billowing yellowish-white cloud near Mississippi Phosphates, a local fertilizer manufacturer. The company told MDEQ that the cloud was probably steam. That was the extent of the investigation and Weckesser’s first glimpse of a larger, frustrating reality. Neither industrial polluters nor the regulators who govern them know exactly how much hazardous air pollution is billowing out of smokestacks at any given time, nor the degree to which that pollution is finding its way into surrounding neighborhoods. The law doesn’t require them to. Back in 1990, when the Clean Air Act mandated how the Environmental Protection Agency would regulate industrial air pollution, monitoring methods were crude, expensive and limited. So the EPA allowed facilities to estimate their emissions of hazardous air pollutants, also called air toxics, like hexavalent chromium and ethylene oxide that can cause cancer, respiratory illnesses, heart problems and other ailments. The agency entrusted states to enforce these rules through air permits, which set limits on the amount of chemicals each facility could emit. Despite dramatic advances in technology, a lot of these permits still rely on self-reported estimates that are often outdated, incomplete or inaccurate. Only rarely do regulators check to see if what is reported matches reality. “We built this whole regulatory system based on a lack of good data,” said Adam Babich, a Tulane professor who specializes in environmental law. It “gets harder and harder to argue with a straight face that it’s unreasonable to require extensive monitoring.” The EPA and state agencies could install air monitors in communities to gauge how much toxic pollution reaches neighborhoods. But there’s no federal requirement to do that. ProPublica, in an unprecedented analysis of modeled EPA emissions data, identified more than 1,000 hot spots of toxic air pollution nationwide. Yet the EPA spends only $5 million per year to run 26 monitoring stations across the country; it offered a . . . read the full article here.