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Oklahoma Town Battles Powdery Carbon Pollution

Part 2 of a four-part series, Poisoned Places: Toxic Air, Neglected Communities

Karen Howe couldn't believe her luck. As a single mom working a minimum-wage job and living with two kids in a crowded one-bedroom apartment in Ponca City, Okla., she was desperate for a three-bedroom house and a lawn.

Howe, a member of the Ponca tribe, was offered tribal housing in a small, tree-lined subdivision of 11 homes on the southern, rural edge of the city.

"I was just real excited and happy about it because we had more space and the kids would've had their own rooms," Howe recalls. She didn't pay much attention to the neighbor across the fence, the Continental Carbon Co., and its industrial complex of pipes, storage tanks and smokestacks.

Continental Carbon produces a fine, black powdery substance called carbon black, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists as a potential human carcinogen.

It's used to strengthen tires and other rubber products, and as a pigment in inks. It also spreads easily in open air. Prolonged exposure, the CDC says, can cause heart and lung problems.

Howe moved into her new home 25 years ago, four years before a Democratic Congress and Republican President George H.W. Bush bolstered the Clean Air Act. The amendments targeted nearly 200 toxic chemicals fouling the nation's air and promised sharp reductions in cancer, birth defects and other ailments blamed on air pollution.

But as Howe was about to discover, and as NPR and the Center for Public Integrity documented in a joint investigation, communities across the country continued to struggle with serious air pollution problems and, in some cases, state and federal regulators failed to quickly or effectively protect them.

Today, more than 1,600 chemical plants, oil refineries, cement kilns and other facilities, including Continental Carbon Co. in Ponca City, are considered "high priority violators" of the Clean Air Act by the Environmental Protection Agency.

As of September, 383 facilities were on an in internal EPA "watch list" obtained by the Center for Public Integrity and NPR, which targets plants for special scrutiny because violations hadn't been addressed in a timely fashion by state and federal regulators. Continental Carbon was on the watch list in August.

Black Dust Covers Ponca City

I can put a tablespoon of carbon black powder in a 40-by-40 room and just blow it with an air conditioning vent, and it would literally coat everything in the room.

In 1993, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality began tracking calls about emissions from Continental Carbon. Eighteen years later, 726 formal complaints are stuffed into 20 thick loose-leaf binders, which are stored at ODEQ's offices in Oklahoma City and were reviewed by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. The binders chronicle a persistent and frustrating struggle with a substance that ruined Howe's sense of well-being in her new home. They also show that hundreds of other residents in the Ponca City area had the same experience.

"They're supposed to protect people," Howe says of the ODEQ and EPA regulators whom she and others appealed to for help. "They're supposed to act on these violations of these bigger companies that put out this pollution, and right down to it, they didn't care, or something would have been done."

Carbon black is like talcum powder. It spreads easily and far with even slight breezes.

"I can put a tablespoon of carbon black powder in a 40-by-40 room and just blow it with an air conditioning vent, and it would literally coat everything in the room," says Dennis Hetu, the company's president. "It just goes everywhere." But none of it is supposed to get beyond the fence.

Still, Howe and her neighbors lived for years with black powder tainting their homes, cars, lawns, pets and clothing.

Karen Howe lived in a neighborhood next to Continental Carbon, where she says her daughter couldn't play outside because the carbon black aggravated her allergies.
David Gilkey / NPR
Karen Howe lived in a neighborhood next to Continental Carbon, where she says her daughter couldn't play outside because the carbon black aggravated her allergies.

"You had to mop extra. You had to dust extra, and it just seemed like it just progressed," Howe recalls. "It just got worse and worse and worse."

Howe's daughter Angela had the toughest time with the black dust, which seemed to aggravate her allergies.

"She couldn't go outside," Howe says. "She rode her bike inside the house with training wheels because of the carbon black."

Angela is 13 now and remembers when she was 5 or 6 watching from the window as other kids played outside. "Sometimes I thought it was unfair," she says, with sadness in her voice. "They're all outside having fun and I'm inside — just alone."

But Howe says she couldn't move.

"I had no place else to go," Howe explains. "We were minimum-wage people. And it was a home."

Their neighbor Jeff Lieb lived in the house closest to the plant for more than 30 years.

"My children grew up having to put up with carbon black. They have asthma," Lieb says, as he rattles off a list of problems familiar to his neighbors. "My grandchildren, when they'd come out and play, we'd throw their shoes away. It'd get on their clothes. It got on our dog."

Effects Felt Miles Away

And it wasn't just the Poncas living in the shadow of the plant who suffered. Wilma and Wally Schatz are non-Indian farmers who live a mile west of Continental Carbon.

"We [were] breathing that stuff and it was just covering us up," says Wilma Schatz, who keeps a salt shaker filled with the black powder in her laundry room so she can show it to visitors.

The couple complained to the ODEQ.

"Oh, [they've] been up here so many times," Wilma Schatz says. "And they would go over there and investigate." Then her husband interrupts: "That's as far as it went," he says.

Even three miles from the plant, in downtown Ponca City in 2005, then-Mayor Richard Stone was receiving calls about school playgrounds, freshly painted houses and all the cars at a car dealership tainted black. But all he had to do to see the problem was walk out of City Hall and look at the fountain on the plaza and the city's cherished bronze statue of a homesteader on horseback.

"You could rub your hand across here and it'd be just black," Stone recalls as he stands between the statue and the fountain. "And you'd rub your hands along the windowsills and it's going to be black."

Continental Carbon sent out cleaning crews at times, but for 18 years the company insisted its plant was not the source of the powder.

"I can't explain what was occurring and why they were calling," says Continental Carbon's Hetu, who has been with the company just seven months. "But I can tell you that all of the testing that was done showed that it was not engineered carbon. Whether it was mold or whether it was mildew or whether it was soot, it was not engineered carbon in 99 percent of the cases."

Inconclusive Results

NPR and the Center for Public Integrity sought those test results, but the company says they're part of sealed court documents and can't be released. The Ponca tribe and ODEQ found that testing for carbon black was inexact.

Jesse Beck, the environmental manager for the Ponca tribe, helped with the tribe's lawsuit against Continental Carbon.
David Gilkey / NPR
Jesse Beck, the environmental manager for the Ponca tribe, helped with the tribe's lawsuit against Continental Carbon.

"As soon as that black enters the atmosphere," explains Jesse Beck, the environmental manager for the Ponca tribe, "it starts being changed by the atmosphere to where it's not chemically the exact same [material] as the stuff that's in the plant."

ODEQ declined NPR's repeated requests for interviews for this story, but in 2005, then-spokeswoman Monty Elder explained more about the testing difficulties in an interview with the public radio program Living on Earth.

"As soon as carbon black leaves the stack ... it starts to stick together," Elder said. "It starts to stick to mold particles. It sticks to dust particles. It sticks to dog hair. ... It cannot be considered, by this test, as carbon black."

ODEQ sent out inspectors in response to complaints, but the agency had a nearly impossible standard for strong enforcement responses.

"We would have to send someone to the facility, and they would have to physically see dust coming off the facility," Elder explained in the 2005 Living on Earth interview. "And depending on weather conditions and depending on how close the local ODEQ office was to the facility ... we may or may not have seen dust coming off."

Many of the complaints reviewed by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity reported clouds of dust escaping the plant at night and on weekends. But state inspectors responded in daylight and often days later. They repeatedly found exposed piles of carbon black at and outside the plant and residue at homes downwind. But they told complainants there was nothing they could do. In 2003, the state was so overwhelmed by complaints, it suddenly stopped sending out inspectors.

EPA was called in because the federal agency is supposed to make sure ODEQ is enforcing the federal Clean Air Act. But EPA simply deferred to the state. EPA also declined interview requests for this story, citing an ongoing but unspecified federal enforcement investigation of Continental Carbon.

"It just continued to get worse and worse and worse," recalls Howe. "So, finally, we put our feet down and [said], 'That's it. That's it.' "

An Alliance Is Formed

The Ponca tribe aligned with union workers at the plant who were locked out in 2001 in a benefits dispute. The alliance produced inside information for the tribe from workers like Dave Westerman, the union chief at the plant who has worked there for 30 years.

"The company likes to do temporary patches, and temporary patches don't hold," Westerman says, also noting that filters break and storage bags leak. "There's many ways that black goes into the atmosphere, so that chain-link fence isn't holding anything in."

Hetu, of Continental Carbon, responds during a tour of the plant in a golf cart, pointing out 10 blue tanks that look like grain silos. Each contains filters designed to capture and hold carbon black.

"We have to collect all those dust particles and we collect them to the tune of several hundred thousand pounds a day," Hetu explains. "If it gets out then we're not selling that material to anybody."

Hetu adds that the company has spent $10 million to make sure it collects as much carbon black as possible. But he also acknowledges mishaps at times in which leaks occur.

The alliance of the union and the tribe grew to include the non-Indian farmers also complaining about fugitive emissions. Environmental consultant Rick Abraham was hired to conduct an international effort to embarrass Continental Carbon.

"I dig up the dirt on polluters, and clearly there were problems," Abraham says. "They were documented in the [ODEQ's] files, and yet those problems continued for years."

Abraham adds that the coalition of "mostly white farmers who had no contact with tribal members, who had no contact with the people who work in the plant" proved to be an unexpected and powerful force. "You had all these people who really didn't work together, and they all came together," he says.

Community Activists File Lawsuits

In 2002, farmers, union workers and members of the Ponca tribe joined together for a sit-in at ODEQ's offices in Oklahoma City. A year later, they staged a protest march at the plant. And in March of 2004, they rallied at the state capital.

Dan Jones, a Ponca tribal official, went with the union to Taiwan during their fight against Continental Carbon over the pollution that was covering their town.
David Gilkey / NPR
Dan Jones, a Ponca tribal official, went with the union to Taiwan during their fight against Continental Carbon over the pollution that was covering their town.

Three months later, union workers and tribal members flew to Taiwan for a 2004 stockholders meeting of Continental Carbon's parent company. The union protested with a hunger strike. Ponca tribal official Dan Jones returned from Taiwan with stunning photographs of the company's carbon black plant there.

"It's beautiful. It's clean. They have gardens throughout the whole thing," Jones recalls. "There's no fugitive emissions at all."

The photographs fueled anger at home. Pressure built on the company and the state, which suddenly resumed inspections in response to complaints. By the end of the year, the company ended the union lockout and agreed to upgrades at the plant.

But complaints about emissions continued to pour in. In 2005, fed up, the city, the tribe, the farmers and others began filing lawsuits against Continental Carbon.

"We're not going to let anybody pollute our city in such a way that we're harming our citizens," says Stone, the former mayor.

A few months later, a similar lawsuit involving a Continental Carbon plant in Alabama resulted in a guilty verdict and a payout of close to $20 million. The company soon began to settle the Ponca City cases. By the end of 2009, it had agreed to settlements reaching another $20 million combined, but it did not accept responsibility.

"Rather than fight and litigate it for years and years and years, we chose to pursue a closure so that we can move on as a community partner," says Hetu.

Moving Away From The Pollution

Today, grass and trees are all that remain of the neighborhood where 11 Ponca families once struggled with a pollutant, a company and state and federal regulators who were supposed to protect them.

Continental Carbon bought and tore down the homes. Some neighboring farmers also sold out, and negotiations continue with others.

"I would say it's cleaner now," says Beck, of the Ponca tribe, as he points to black powdery patches in the dirt. "These streaks that you see along the railroad tracks were much darker and much bigger back five, six years ago."

Complaints have plummeted. There were only six last year.

In written responses to questions, ODEQ says it spent considerable time and resources investigating complaints. In 2006, with multiple lawsuits pending, the agency decided to take strong action even if inspectors didn't witness carbon black leaving the plant. It levied more than $25,000 in fines and prompted fixes costing close to $200,000.

But it also took more than 13 years, more than 700 formal complaints, a union lockout, sit-ins and protests in Oklahoma and Taiwan, and lawsuits and settlements of close to $20 million, before life downwind did not involve daily struggles with black powder.

On the other side of Ponca City, in a neighborhood far from Continental Carbon, Howe embraces a normal life.

"I'm just glad that the kids are out of that pollution," she says, "and [that] we're living somewhere else where they can ride their bike[s] in clean air."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
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