air pollution

The Supreme Court hears a challenge Wednesday to Obama administration rules aimed at limiting the amount of mercury and other hazardous pollutants emitted from coal- and oil-fired utility plants. The regulations are being challenged by major industry groups like the National Mining Association and more than 20 states.

The regulations have been in the works for nearly two decades. Work on them began in the Clinton administration, got derailed in the George W. Bush administration, and then were revived and adopted in the Obama administration.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Some communities are unlucky recipients of air pollution that blows in from other states and today, those areas got good news by way of a Supreme Court ruling. It revives a major air pollution rule that was knocked down by a lower court. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports it's another big victory for the Environmental Protection Agency.

In its "Poisoned Places" series, NPR reports that industry here in Louisiana is emitting more smog-producing chemicals than it should and regulators aren't doing enough to curtail the pollution.

Elizabeth Shogren honed in on Exxon's Baton Rouge refinery and the smoke Almena Poray sees from the front porch of her house, a block from the refinery's south gate.

"That's something you see every day," Poray told the NPR reporter. "Sometimes it's a darker gray, sometimes it's a black smoke coming out."

Ed Overton, professor emeritus of environmental science at LSU, and Robert Berg, state regulatory advisor for Exxon talk more about what Poray is seeing and breathing from her front porch.


Cities like Houston are dotted with air-sniffing monitors that measure levels of benzene and other potentially unhealthy air pollutants. But those monitors can't answer the question we care about most: Is the air safe?

That's because there's no simple relationship between toxic air pollutants and health risks. Researchers at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill are trying to get a leg up on that problem. They are building an instrument that uses human lung cells to measure health hazards in the air more directly.

The Houston area produces about a quarter of the nation's gasoline, and about a third of the plastics that are in our cars, cupboards and just about everywhere else. So it is no surprise that this heavily industrial area has a problem with air pollution. But in the past decade, Houston's air has improved dramatically.

How that happened is a tale of good science, new technology and a Texas law that prompted companies along the Houston Ship Channel to disclose their emissions.