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The EPA is tracking about 1,600 “high priority violators” nationwide, nearly 300 of which have been in its sights since 2001 or longer. NPR and CPI used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain another, previously undisclosed EPA “watch list” of 383 serious or chronic polluters that have faced no formal enforcement action for nine months or more. These include commercial oil refineries, steel mills, pharmaceutical manufacturers, incinerators, and cement kilns, as well as military and municipal facilities. Only four Northwest sites made this list.
It's important to note that “high priority violators” like Saint-Gobain are not all currently breaking the law; EPA assigns this tag according to a complex formula “designed to direct scrutiny to those violations that are most important." And not every facility on the watch list remains a threat to public health. In fact, some never were. King County’s West Point sewage treatment plant is safely removed from populated neighborhoods and washed by winds off Puget Sound. But in 2008 plant operators discovered that four massive sewage-pumping engines were emitting more nitrous oxides and carbon monoxide than legally permitted. Pam Elardo, director of King County’s wastewater treatment division, was the plant's manager in 2008. She says even the nearest residents have nothing to fear: “It’s light years away from being a problem, given the location of West Point and the kind of winds they have."
The county could have challenged regulators’ interpretation of the plant's permit, says Elardo. But after a year-and-a-half of discussions it opted instead to improve its treatment process so as to emit fewer pollutants. That will take years to achieve, however, because the sewage-pumping engines can only be taken offline during dry periods when less rainwater infiltrates sewer pipes.
In the meantime, Elardo assures visitors to Discovery Park, which surrounds the West Point plant, that they needn't worry about the emissions: “It’s far worse to stand next to a roadway.”
And that’s where Saint-Gobain's bottle plant sits, right next to Highway 99.
Bonnie Stewart of the Oregon Public Broadcasting-affiliated news site EarthFix contributed to this report.
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