Faith and the Environment

‘Toxic 100’ air polluters must be held accountable, says report by United Church of Christ

This morning, the United Church of Christ released its “Toxic 100” report, which lists the 100 facilities in the United States that produce the most toxic air pollution, as well as the demographics of residents who live within three miles of these facilities.

The report, formally titled “Breath to the People: Sacred Air and Toxic Pollution,” is “a moral spotlight on the places where that sacred air is being poisoned and where children often suffer the most,” said the Rev. Brooks Berndt, United Church of Christ’s minister of environmental justice, at a news conference in Washington, D.C.

The research, conducted by the Environmental Integrity Project, details how dangerous levels of toxic chemicals — ethylene oxide, hexavalent chromium, nickel — are associated with illnesses such as asthma, brain damage, cancer and birth defects. Young children with developing minds and bodies are at an even higher risk.

The report estimates that 1.6 million people, including 112,681 children under the age of five, live within 3 miles of a facility included in the Toxic 100. Of these residents, 44% are low income, compared to the nationwide average of 33%. Houston, Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” and Lake Erie’s southern shore are listed as “Toxic Air Emission Hot Spots” because of their high concentration of Toxic 100 facilities.

“These are the realities of everyday people sitting in the shadow of oil and gas infrastructure, with toxics that trespass property lines, that exit the fence line and enter the fence line communities,” said Yvette Arellano, a policy researcher and grassroots advocate for Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, at the conference.

But all is not lost, according to the report. With well-intentioned and executed plans, governments can curb many of these toxic emissions. And it starts with accountability. 

The United Church of Christ report calls for these toxic facilities — which produce nearly 39% of all the toxic emissions in the nation — to be held accountable for both their carbon footprint and the negative health effects experienced by nearby residents. 

On top of increased enforcement of the Clean Air Act and prioritization of public health and wellbeing, the report recommends companies mitigate leaks by installing monitors. In 2018, almost a quarter of toxic emissions came from leaks that could be prevented by monitoring and enforcement.

Finally, the report recommends an expansion of the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, the system facilities use to report their emissions. But that system comes with its own problems: Though the Toxics Release Inventory is a valuable resource, it’s also limited — companies are expected to report accurate information, and many industries or facilities, such as incinerators and gas-processing plants, aren’t required to report at all.

These recommendations, however, will be for naught without proper enforcement. Unfortunately, rather than expand the Toxics Release Inventory and air quality enforcement, the current United States administration has attempted to roll back nearly 100 environmental protections.

“Since the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency 50 years ago, our nation has not witnessed an assault of this scale on environmental protections by a presidential administration,” said the Rev. Traci Blackmon at the event. “The overall picture is one of institutional dismantlement and destruction.”

That in mind, the United Church of Christ will continue working with congregations across the country to pressure legislators to action, said Berndt.

“We have a responsibility to be good stewards of this earth we have inherited, recognizing that we are a part of something much greater than ourselves,” said Blackmon. “We have a responsibility to leave for future generations a world that they can breathe in, just as those generations that preceded us had a responsibility to leave us a world in which we could thrive.”

To engage your community and protect our air quality, participate in the world’s largest citizen science initiative, Earth Challenge 2020. You can also mobilize your community with the UCC Environmental Justice Policy Advocate Toolkit to raise awareness and pressure legislators to enforce the Clean Air Act. 

On April 22, 2020 — the 50th anniversary of Earth Day — tell leaders enough is enough. Join an Earth Day event or host your own.