About this project

A look at the reporting process behind Poisoned Places

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 Updated:

In the fall of 1991, reporter Jim Morris visited the oil refining and chemical manufacturing center of Corpus Christi to investigate skyrocketing cancer rates along the Texas Gulf Coast. As he went about his reporting for the Houston Chronicle, he couldn’t help noticing: People living near Refinery Row, a string of fuming, malodorous plants wedged between Interstate 37 and the Corpus Christi ship channel, seemed paralyzed by fear for their health, wary of powerful companies in their community and unsure where to turn for help.

Nearly two decades later, Morris returned to Corpus Christi while on assignment for the Center for Public Integrity. By then, the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments were not only the law of the land but had improved the air many Americans breathed. In Corpus Christi, some homes near a refinery had been bought and bulldozed. But to Morris’ astonishment, conditions on Refinery Row seemed largely unchanged. Emissions continued, and people seemed no more hopeful about the prospects for their health, or for being heard.

Morris wondered why citizens in such places — where the air stinks, people are sick and industry looms large — had found neither relief nor reassurance. In early 2011, a team of reporters began looking for answers. Among their sources of information: federal data detailing sources of hazardous air pollutants known as air toxics and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforcement records. (More information about our methodology here.)

Further reporting identified communities that appeared to have suffered disproportionately from air toxics, perhaps as a result of weak scrutiny and policing by regulatory authorities. That work eventually led to ground-level reporting in communities such as Muscatine, Iowa; Hayden, Ariz.; Tonawanda, N.Y.; and Ponca City, Okla. These places seemed to have been passed over in the quest for cleaner air mandated by Congress in 1990. Each community's story said something about the larger breakdown in protection of citizens by their government. 

The work expanded to include reporters at NPR, who with their Center counterparts fanned out to communities in 10 states, interviewing residents, company officials and local, state and federal regulators. Data experts for the news organizations, meanwhile, analyzed EPA databases such as the Toxics Release Inventory and a computer-based tool known as Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators to get a sense of the dirtiest operations and riskiest parts of the country.

Then, as often happens during in-depth investigations — an unexpected discovery. Reporters learned that the EPA maintains a “watch list” that includes serious or chronic Clean Air Act violators that have not been subject to timely enforcement. Two versions of the internal list, never previously made public, were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. (More about the watch list here.)

This multimedia investigative series, Poisoned Places, is the result of that nine-month effort. Stories and video mini-documentaries — many featuring what has happened and not happened in communities across the country since the Clean Air Act amendments of 21 years ago — will appear during the next few weeks and into 2012. An interactive database enables users to look up sources of toxic air near where they live. Citizens will be shown how to test their community's air themselves and encouraged to share their experiences with us.

Questions? Comments? Let us know what you think.

The Team

Lead reporter: Jim Morris

Data analysts: Elizabeth Lucas (CPI) and Robert Benincasa (NPR)

Reporting team: Chris Hamby, Ronnie Greene, Kristen Lombardi, Corbin Hiar (CPI), Howard Berkes, Sandra Bartlett and Elizabeth Shogren (NPR)

Images and video: Emma Schwartz (CPI), John Poole and David Gilkey (NPR)

Web team: Cole Goins, Ajani Winston, Sarah Whitmire, Erik Lincoln (CPI) and Alicia Cypress and Nelson Hsu (NPR)

Research: Barbara Van Woerkom (NPR) and Devorah Adler (CPI)

Also contributing: Rachael Marcus, Paul Abowd, Alexandra Duszak (CPI) and Quinn Ford (NPR)

Data editor: David Donald

NPR editor: Susanne Reber

Project editor: Keith Epstein

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