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When the Environmental Protection Agency hosted a meeting last week to discuss hazardous air pollution in Verona, Missouri, Mayor Joseph Heck came armed with demands for round-the-clock air monitoring and a study of local cancer rates. “We’re here to find out more about the ethylene oxide pollution,” Heck said, referring to a potent chemical that can cause cancer by mutating DNA. “We know it is here. We know it’s dangerous, and we want answers.”
The EPA had announced the event a few weeks after ProPublica published a unique, detailed analysis showing hot spots across the country where cancer risk is elevated by pollution from nearby industrial facilities, and after TV station KY3 aired a segment highlighting our analysis’s implications for the city’s 620 residents. One of Verona’s largest employers, the BCP Ingredients manufacturing facility, was substantially increasing the cancer risk in the area with its ethylene oxide emissions, our analysis showed. In some places, including the post office and city hall, the industrial cancer risk was an estimated 27 times the level that the EPA considers acceptable. The company said in a statement that the facility “is in full compliance” with federal and state regulations.
In the high school gymnasium, officials from the EPA’s regional office and Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources were barraged with questions from a community witnessing firsthand the flaws of a regulatory system that is supposed to safeguard them from unsafe levels of air pollution. They learned that the company’s emissions data is self-reported and unverified. (“That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my goddamn life,” one resident yelled from the bleachers.) They heard state officials say they were prevented, by Missouri law, from enforcing tougher restrictions than the federal government’s, and heard EPA officials say they had limited authority over the facility. (“You all don’t even have the authority to shut them down?” another resident asked.)
Toward the end of the meeting, Verona alderwoman Amy Spears said these officials were constrained by decisions made above their heads. “We need to go to our legislators,” she said, to loud applause. Greg Winters, a military veteran who’d recently moved to the area to start a family farm, said he would be paying close attention to what happens next, because he is worried about his kids’ long-term health. “As soon as I saw that report, I knew I needed to come down here tonight,” he said. “It pissed me off.”