EPA database pinpoints polluters in the neighborhood

Posted by Trish Riley, October 22, 2011

The database shows an incident at Tampa's wastewater treatment plant, but none of the problems provoked a penalty from the EPA, officials said.

TAMPA — Jennifer Willman lives in a historic house in a quiet, waterfront corner of Tampa. Her neighbors, though, leave something to be desired.

“There are times we smell things in the air, and we don’t always know where they’re coming from,” Willman said.

Her neighborhood, Palmetto Beach, is surrounded on three sides by one of the Tampa Bay region’s densest clusters of industrial development.

The community is bookended by two of Hillsborough County’s biggest pollution sources: the Port of Tampa and Tampa’s garbage incinerator.

The community, at the top of McKay Bay, is home to fewer than 2,000 people, about two-thirds of them Hispanics. Life there centers around the city’s DeSoto Park.

“We’re outside a lot,” Willman said. “We’re very aware, especially with air pollution, if there’s a problem.”

A new tool recently released by the Environmental Protection Agency could make it easier for Willman and her neighbors to keep tabs on the polluters in their midst.

The EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online – ECHO for short – lets anyone get a bird’s-eye view of companies in their area that hold federal permits for emitting pollution into the air, water or land.

The system as been around for years, but the EPA recently added a mapping system that lets people search for polluters by city, ZIP code or company name.

Anyone digging into the ECHO system will find layer upon layer of information about a given company, including how often they’ve reported themselves in violation of federal environmental laws.

EPA officials say the new system replaces one that showed only violations. Adding the permit-holders who are toeing the legal line adds more depth to the information and should keep everyone honest, they said in a written statement.

Visits to the ECHO system have doubled since 2008 to more than 2 million. EPA officials hope that number increases as they expand the system to mobile devices.

But critics say the reports ECHO users get can be misleading.

For example, plug in Willman’s ZIP code – 33605 – and amid the flurry of markers that turns up, two stand out: a large red one for dry-dock operator Gulf Marine Repair Inc., and a small yellow one for Tampa’s Howard F. Curren sewer plant.

The red flag shows Gulf Marine has violated the federal Clean Air Act in recent years. Though the company has reached a deal with the EPA to fix its problems, ECHO reports violations within the last three to five years. So Gulf Marine’s marker remains an attention-grabbing red.

The sewer plant’s orange marker warns that it’s now out of line with federal water-quality laws and has been three times since last October.

City officials say the EPA report doesn’t tell the whole story.

Each of those violations came from momentary power outages that affected the plant’s ability to chlorinate wastewater to EPA limits, said city wastewater division director Anthony Kasper.

The power outages were beyond the treatment plant’s control, Kasper said.

Each problem, known as an excursion, happened once in a three-month period and was fixed within minutes. The city notified the EPA and the state Department of Environmental protection each time, Kasper said.

None of the problems provoked a penalty from the EPA, Kasper said.

“What doesn’t show up in the EPA database is that the excursion was five minutes,” Kasper said. “Five minutes in the entire quarter.”

Willman expects the new ECHO system will make it easier for her community to keep itself informed and its industrial neighbors honest.

“We have faith that the EPA and DEP are monitoring things and are going to protect us as much as possible,” she said.

To check pollution levels in your neighborhood, go to www.epa-echo.gov/echo.

By Kevin Wiatrowski of The Tampa Tribune
From Tampa Bay Online