A chemical plant looms behind a swing set in Houston. Pat Sullivan/AP
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Roderick Bremby, former secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, lost his job after he blocked a permit for a new coal-fired power plant. John Hanna/AP file

When the top environmental regulator in Kansas rejected its bid to build two new power units in 2007, citing health concerns, Sunflower Electric Power Corp. refused to take no for an answer. When the governor vetoed bills that would have paved the way for construction in 2008 and 2009, Sunflower again refused to relent.

The company’s persistence paid off. In 2009, the new governor approved construction of a new coal plant in the tiny city of Holcomb, so long as Kansas legislators backed renewable energy policies at the same time. The state regulator who initially denied Sunflower’s permit? He was let go.

Sunflower said it won the permit on merit, and that political influence was not a factor.

Yet the company’s success is a telling snapshot of how, when industry flexes its muscles over Clean Air Act issues, it often wins. From Kansas to Louisiana to Texas, Wisconsin and Ohio, community groups have fought new plants, expansions and chronic emissions – only to see industry score victories with regulators and politicians.

“We’re not protecting public health today,” said Jim Tarr, an air pollution consultant in California who worked as an engineer for the Texas Air Control Board in the 1970s. “One of the primary reasons we’re not is that the environmental agencies have been co-opted by the people doing the polluting.”

Industry’s influence plays out at every step of the process: From the campaign contributions it spreads to sway policy to its role shaping clean air rules to its resistance to enforcement actions brought by regulators.

Its reach is deeper than most realize.

Two just-published reports – one from academic researchers, the other from the Environmental Protection Agency’s own inspector general – detail industry’s role in shaping Clean Air Act regulations meant to protect communities from dirty air.

The academics’ studyRulemaking in the Shade: An Empirical Study of EPA’s Air Toxic Emission Standards – examined the level of input by industry and public interest groups at key stages as the EPA wrote rules for more than 100 major industries. Those stages: Before a proposed rule was published; once notice was given and the public weighed in; and during the final rule-writing process.

The results surprised even the study’s authors:

  • At the early, pre-proposal stage, industry had an average of 84 informal communications with the EPA per rule compared to less than 1 for public interest groups;
  • During the public comment period, industry provided more than 8 of every 10 comments;
  • Changes to the final rule favored industry 4-1 over those benefiting public interest groups.

“We expected imbalance in engagement, but did not imagine it would be that badly skewed,” said co-author Wendy Wagner, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law.

For every two industry comments, she said, one change was made weakening the final rule.

Industry said its motivation is no secret.

“It’s survival,” said Robert Bessette, president of the Council of Industrial Boiler Owners, a trade group representing manufacturers that use boilers to power their operations. “Industry, when pushed up against the wall, reacts.”

The council is pushing back against a proposed EPA rule to curb toxic emissions from boilers – an effort that includes prodding Congress to pass legislation and meeting with the EPA and the Office of Management and Budget, Bessette said.

Political contributions help ease industry’s access. Thirteen states house three-fourths of the nation’s most worrisome air polluters – facilities listed on an EPA “watch list” of alleged violators that haven’t faced timely enforcement. Those companies, their corporate parents and executives have made nearly $60 million in overall state campaign contributions since 2006, the Center for Public Integrity found.

Facilities in the six congressional districts with the greatest number of watch list sites contributed $120,350 to their federal representatives since 2006.

Uneven state enforcement

In some states, industry influence is clear.

The EPA IG’s recent report, EPA Must Improve Oversight of State Enforcement, documents breakdowns in Clean Air Act enforcement that can translate into fewer health protections for communities in the shadow of power plants, refineries and chemical manufacturers.

“When neither states nor EPA takes enforcement actions when needed, these health benefits are not realized and premature deaths and illnesses are not prevented to the extent that they could be,” the IG concluded. “As a result, EPA cannot assure that Americans in all states are equally protected from the health effects of pollution or that enforcement of regulated entities is consistent nationwide.”

The IG said a culture of protecting industry was clear in some states with the weakest records of enforcing the Clean Air Act, such as Louisiana.

“State, EPA regional, and external interview responses attributed Louisiana’s poor performance to several factors, including a lack of resources, natural disasters, and a culture in which the state agency is expected to protect industry,” the IG found.

The EPA did not respond to the Center’s questions about Rulemaking in the Shade. In its reply to the IG’s report, the agency questioned some of the research methodology – but ultimately agreed “that state enforcement performance varies widely across the country.”

“We also agree that there are steps EPA Headquarters and regional offices can and should take to strengthen our oversight and address longstanding state performance issues,” the EPA replied.

That industry weighs in with frequency and success is no surprise to environmental activists, people who live near plant fence-lines and some political leaders who have long tangled with Big Oil.

“The fight that industry wages against any kind of threat to their pollution is across the board,” said James “Jim” Cox, a retired state senator from southwest Louisiana. “It boils down to the control the industry has of the community. It’s a jobs situation. It’s a well-organized lobbying situation.”

Health fears in Mossville

One long-running battle centers on Mossville, a small African-American community founded in the 1790s across from Lake Charles, La.

Fourteen major industrial facilities surround the community, including an oil refinery, a coal plant, chemical manufacturers and one of the largest clusters of vinyl production facilities in the United States.

For 15 years, residents have been asking government and industry to relocate them from the powerful odors and toxic chemicals released by the plants, citing reports showing dangerous levels of dioxins in the air. Dioxins, researchers say, can cause cancer and reproductive damage and slow child development.

In 1998, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that Mossville residents had an average dioxin blood level three times above that in the typical U.S. community.

The report, however, did not identify the source of the exposure. A later ATSDR report said residents in the neighboring parishes of Calcasieu and Lafayette had typical blood dioxin levels. But, residents say, that report included a larger group outside Mossville. Their health fears continue.

Wilma Subra, a chemist from Louisiana who studied the community, produced a report linking dioxin levels to local industry.

As Mossville residents pressed for answers, the government continued to issue permits fueling industry’s growth. The EPA’s enforcement website lists more than a dozen facilities in Lake Charles out of compliance with the Clean Air Act.

In 2005, the people of Mossville filed an environmental racism petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States. When the commission accepted the complaint last year, it became the first such U.S. case to move forward.

“Filing the human rights petition is really our last resort,” said one of the community’s lawyers, Monique Harden, co-director of the public interest law firm Advocates for Environmental Human Rights.

“It’s been 15 years of evolving strategies,” Harden said. “Residents want a voluntary relocation program that they help to develop. They want medical care services. They want pollution reduction and cleanup of contaminated sites. So it’s been years of trying to get both the industry in the Mossville area and governmental agencies to meet the community on these remedies.”

Some residents have been relocated, but the petition seeks a more far-reaching move-out for those who want it. It asks that the U.S. “refrain from issuing environmental permits and other approvals that would allow any increase in pollution.”

Lake Charles-area companies deny causing any harm to residents, saying they strive to curtail emissions.

“We strongly support efforts to reduce dioxins in the environment,” Georgia Gulf Corp., which makes a raw ingredient in polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, wrote on the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre website.

“Our industry is responsible for quality products that consumers want, buy and use every day. Medical supplies, medicines and pharmaceutical products, computer keyboards, PVC pipe, automobile dashboards, toys and sporting goods and food wrap are products Louisiana plants help make, and these products in turn help Louisianans enjoy a healthy and productive lifestyle,” the company wrote.

Echoing other facilities, PPG Industries said it operates “in a manner that is protective of public health, safety and the environment.” ConocoPhillips, the world’s fifth-largest refiner, declined an interview request but cited its website, saying it is committed to working with its neighbors.

‘They love their polluters’

In some communities, activists feel like lone wolves.

In Longview, in East Texas, the Eastman Chemical Co. plant is among the top national emitters of ethylene glycol, chloromethane and chloroform – compounds that can damage the nervous system, liver, kidneys or lungs. EPA records show $420,004 in Clean Air Act penalties levied in the last five years against Eastman, which manufactures more than 40 major chemical and polymer products.

Eastman said it diligently monitors emissions and its Longview site meets air-quality standards. “Protecting air quality is an essential and complex part of Eastman’s environmental program,” the company said in a statement. “The men and women at Eastman not only strive to improve Eastman’s compliance with the Clean Air Act because it is the law, but also because we and our families live in the adjacent communities.”

Over a five-year period from August 2005 to August 2010, no residents filed complaints about the facility with the Tyler office of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, records show.

That is not surprising, some say, in a region proud of the economic jolt industry provides, where Eastman Road runs astride the plant and where, in 2009, the Texas Chemical Council awarded Eastman its “Excellence in Caring for Texas” award. The plant employs more than 1,500, placing it among the largest employers in a region replete with industry.

Tammy Cromer-Campbell, a professional photographer and environmental activist, is a rare breed in Longview: a critic who stands up against pollution. She said the mission has been lonely. “They love their polluters,” Cromer-Campbell said with a laugh while driving near Longview’s industrial hub.

A co-founder of a group called WECAN – Working Effectively for Clean Air Now – she rose up at meetings of the Northeast Texas Air Care, a cooperative association of local governments and industries. Cromer-Campbell found herself the outsider looking in.

“Whenever I go to those meetings, I don’t have a crowd of people behind me, supporting me. It’s all industry,” she said. “I got burnt out. We couldn’t get a lot of other people to join me.”

Picking up the slack

Some Texas officials are frustrated, too.

Two veteran lawyers with the Harris County Attorney’s Office – whose jurisdiction includes Houston and the nation’s largest petrochemical complex – seem to be in perpetual conflict with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

One, Terry O’Rourke, called the agency “a lap dog for polluters” and said state regulators are too quick to overlook companies that poison the air and water. O’Rourke said his office, which represents the Harris County Pollution Control Services Department, has picked up the slack.

“We have to stop the pollution at its source,” said O’Rourke, who began prosecuting polluters as an assistant state attorney general in 1973. “You do it the same way you write speeding tickets. If you don’t enforce the law, everybody will be driving 100 miles per hour.”

His colleague, Rock Owens, said the TCEQ “treats the regulated community as if they are customers. It’s always with an eye toward the convenience and the bottom line of the major players.”

Owens cited a recent example. On five occasions from April 2008 through March 2010, according to a civil complaint drafted by the county attorney’s office, a Shell Chemical plant east of Houston “illegally released over eight tons of toxic petrochemicals into the air in Harris County, including known carcinogens such as benzene and butadiene. . .”

Shell, however, failed to report the releases to the county within 24 hours, as required. The TCEQ fined Shell $71,900 for one of the incidents in 2008. Owens’s office deemed this insufficient and went after Shell, preparing a complaint in 2010 that sought more than $6 million in penalties.

The case was settled this year, with Shell agreeing to pay $500,000 to the county. O’Rourke said he remains annoyed the TCEQ didn’t move more aggressively.

“That, to me, is fundamentally offensive,” O’Rourke said. “TCEQ slapped their wrist. We’ve got kids who play in schoolyards in the shadow of these [plants]. Most of them are black and brown, and a lot of them are poor. Just because they’re poor doesn’t mean they should have to breathe crap.”

He added: “We can have the largest petrochemical complex in the United States and still have a clean environment. They are not incompatible.”

In a written statement, Shell said that while it “disputes the claims and allegations made by Harris County, we are complying with the settlement in the interest of securing a timely and effective resolution to this matter.”

The TCEQ said in a statement that it has fined Shell more than $1.4 million over the past five years as a result of 26 enforcement orders, many involving “unauthorized emissions and failure to comply with permitted emission limits.”

The TCEQ “emphasizes compliance to protect our citizens from harm, coupled with swift, sure and firm enforcement for those who do not comply,” the statement said.

Owens scoffed at the amount of the TCEQ penalties, saying large companies like Shell consider them “just another part of doing business in Texas. Pay a little fine, go about your way – that’s not an effective deterrent.”

Shell, which reported profits of $18.6 billion in 2010, cited $7 billion in profits in the third quarter of 2011 alone.

Working Washington

Big industry pays big lobbying fees to press its agenda in Washington.

The Washington lobby shop for San Antonio-based Valero Energy Corp., for instance, spent $496,000 in the first three quarters of this year pressing environmental issues ranging from air and water quality to fuel specifications.

The company also hired outside lobbyists to work the aisles of Congress and federal agencies, according to Senate lobbying disclosure records.

One firm, Bracewell & Giuliani, spent $140,000 lobbying for Valero on “clean air, energy legislation and other environmental issues relating to the refining industry.” Among the lobbyists is a former acting general counsel for the EPA.

Six Valero plants – five refineries and one ethanol plant – are on the EPA’s November Clean Air Act watch list.

Still, the company’s message to its shareholders has been reassuring. Even if “one or more [enforcement actions] were decided against us, we believe that there would be no material effect on our financial position or results of operations,” Valero said in its 2010 annual report.

A Valero spokesman declined to comment, saying, “Our advocacy efforts are outlined in required filings.”

‘There were abuses’

Industry often prevails over critics – and, sometimes, regulators.

In Holcomb, Kan., residents so far have been unable to stop the Sunflower power plant even after the state initially shot it down.

After Roderick Bremby, then head of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, denied Sunflower’s initial permit application, project supporters pushed bills in the state legislature clearing the way for construction.

In 2008 and 2009, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius vetoed the bills.

Less than a month after an April 2009 veto, Sebelius left to become secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson took over, and, by May 4, had struck a deal with Sunflower.

Before the plant could be built, it had to get a permit – a lengthy process allowing public input. The clock was ticking: If the permit wasn’t issued by January 2011, new rules would require the plant to do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In November 2010, as the January deadline loomed, Parkinson fired Bremby.

In a statement the week after the firing, Parkinson said the decision wasn’t related to the Sunflower permit. “When evaluating the permit application,” Parkinson said, “what I have told the acting Secretary is simply this: I don’t care whether you approve the permit or not, but I do care that Kansas follows the laws and regulations governing the process.”

But Bremby, who is now commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Social Services, said during a speech at a Kansas community college this February that the permit approval process “was not a benign, pristine, routine bureaucratic process. Unfortunately, there were abuses.”

On Dec. 16, 2010, the Kansas department approved Sunflower’s permit.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, soon challenged the permit in court, accusing state officials of rushing the permitting process because of pressure from Sunflower and the governor’s office. The result, the firm alleged, was a flawed permit.

Among the concerns expressed in Earthjustice’s legal brief: State regulators allowed Sunflower to underestimate the amount of toxic air pollution it would release, shielding it from requirements to install better pollution controls.

Sunflower spokesperson Cindy Hertel said the permit “was thoroughly vetted” by state regulators. “As far as influencing anyone, we certainly did not,” she said.

Some in Holcomb want the new plant for the economic boost Sunflower promises will come, but others are worried. Lee Messenger, who lives a few miles from the current plant and the proposed site for the new one, fears the expansion will drain the town’s water supply and pollute the air.

“We don’t get a chance to vote on anything,” said Messenger, 81. “These politicians like to think we elected them to take care of us. But they take care of themselves first. “

Kansas regulators declined to comment on Sunflower’s permit, citing the ongoing court case. In a brief, lawyers with the state attorney general’s office wrote, “The accusations of political bias and procedural impropriety are factually unsupportable in the administrative record.”

Business-friendly regulators

Some grassroots groups worry that state environmental agencies lean too heavily toward business interests.

In Wisconsin, Scott Walker swept into the governor’s office in 2010 on a message of job creation. Soon after, he appointed Cathy Stepp, a former Republican state senator, to head the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Stepp had been a vocal critic of the department she now leads. In June 2009, she posted on a conservative blog that some who worked at the state agency “tend to be anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro-garter snakes, Karner blue butterflies, etc. … So, since they’re unelected bureaucrats who have only their cubicle walls to bounce ideas off of, they tend to come up with some pretty outrageous stuff that those of us in the real world have to contend with.”

DNR officials said Stepp was unavailable for an interview. The department’s No. 2 official, Matt Moroney, said that before joining the department, Stepp “was representing a constituency. She was listening closely to some of her business friends and looking at how to improve DNR.”

Her current job, he said, “is a completely different role for her.” Stepp has focused on cutting waste and streamlining the agency. This October, department officials testified in favor of a bill in the state legislature that would restrict the number of times regulators could ask companies for more information on a permit application. It would also impose stricter time limits for the department to approve permits.

Environmental groups say the department’s new approach, coupled with tightening budgets, will undermine attempts to curb pollution. “They are going to these public hearings and advocating for taking their own authority away,” said Shahla Werner, director of the state’s Sierra Club chapter. “It’s surreal to watch.”

Paint-eating pollution

Middletown, Ohio, has lived under the cloud of AK Steel for nearly a century. The largest employer in the Ohio town 40 miles north of Cincinnati, AK Steel has for decades pumped out pollution that takes the paint off residents’ cars and settles in their siding, some say.

“It got into people’s gardens, and kids playing in the yard would come in with their feet black from the soot,” said longtime resident Rachael Belz.

In 2000, the Department of Justice sued AK Steel over violations of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency joined the suit, which settled out of court and required the company to clean up Dicks Creek, which runs between the facility and a neighboring school. AK Steel committed to $66 million in pollution-control upgrades.

The facility remains on the EPA’s Clean Air Act watch list, and some say problems linger. “We still have soot in our house,” said Belz, who suffers from asthma. “You can’t sit outside on your porch for more than 10 to 15 minutes without crap flying into your coffee.”

An AK Steel spokesman said the company does not know why it is on the watch list and has complied with regulations. He declined further comment.

During the civil case, residents launched a campaign to pressure the company to meet its promises. Elected officials, community organizer Belz said, made themselves scarce.

But politicians, from the city council to the governor’s office to U.S. Rep. John Boehner – a regular beneficiary of AK Steel contributions – were on hand to cheer the company’s 2010 expansion plan. Boehner did not reply to interview requests.

“We do our campaigns in part,” Belz said, “because we can’t count on our politicians.”

Paul Abowd, Rachael Marcus and Fred Schulte contributed to this report.

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A journalist since 1978, Jim Morris has won more than 80 awards for his work, including the George Polk...