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EPA Releases Secret ‘Watch List’ of Potential Clean Air Violators

Facilities operated by Abbott Labs, Boeing, Ford, GE, GM, Shell and Weyerhaeuser all appear on a secret EPA “watch list” published. for the first time, by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity.

The EPA created the list in 2004 in response to criticism that it wasn’t being tough enough on chronic violators of the Clean Air Act. A facility can find itself on the list if regulators don’t take action within nine months of determining that the plant is a chronic or serious violator of environmental regulations.

But plants can also end up on the list by accident. Grant Nakayama, head of EPA enforcement under President Bush, said some facilities on the list are likely the “worst of the worst,” while others probably don’t pose significant environmental risks. A plant can also appear on the list because authorities are negotiating with it, or are tracking its compliance with a court order, or because of alleged violations that have not been proven.

The list may also contain data errors, such as listings that remain after state agencies take enforcement action but delay reporting that action to the EPA.

But the EPA also said that some facilities which should be on the list might not appear. On the latest version of the watch list, from September, 95 percent of facilities are classified as “high priority violators.”

NPR published the names and locations of 464 facilities on the EPA’s watch lists dated July and September. Companies on the combined list include Abengoa Bioenergy, Air Products, Alchem Aluminum,  Alcoa, American Electric Power, ArcelorMittal, BP, Cargill, Cemex, Chevron Phillips, Citgo, ConocoPhillips, Dow Corning, Dupont, Eastman Chemical, ExxonMobil, FirstEnergy, Hyundai, International Paper, Owens Corning, Pepco, PPG Industries, Prudential, Reliant Energy, Sunoco, Tennessee Valley Authority, UBS, Union Carbide, Valero and Veolia.

Half of the power plants, refineries and industrial facilities listed are in six states: Ohio, Texas, Illinois, Louisiana, Wisconsin and Indiana. A handful of universities and government agencies also appear, including the Smithsonian Institution and Yale University.

NPR and the Center for Public Integrity sought comment from representatives of all facilities, and about one third responded. Most said they had no idea why they were on the list.

American Electric Power said the information used to include its company’s was “at best, misleading and outdated. At worst it was wrong. … The classification is based solely on the allegations initially made by the agency, regardless of their merit, or what the ultimate resolution (if any) of the individual cases was.”

Boeing said that the EPA “confirmed to Boeing that our facility in Everett, Wash., is not on the EPA’s watch list. The Everett facility … had been placed on the watch list” after the company reported that “4 gallons of aerospace paint had been applied to parts while the improper filters were in place.” The company said it paid $1,288 in penalties in June 2011 and should have been removed from the list.

The EPA redacted information on the reason for each facility’s inclusion, arguing that such disclosure could impair investigations.

Nakayama said the EPA had kept the list secret in part to avoid letting offenders know that they were being investigated. Former Clean Air Act enforcement official Richard Alonso said the EPA was also concerned that the list would be viewed as a “most-wanted list.”

But the agency plans to start publishing the list later this year.

Picture credit: Justin Greenough

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