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Business and the environment: An inside look at corporations and air quality

By Flickr user Matt Anderson

This is the third in a three-part series by Rebecca McClay that explores how journalists can better investigate the relationship between business and environment.

In the first two articles, we looked at ways to reporters can investigate how companies impact water quality and affect land quality. Now, we’ll explore here how business journalists can monitor how their local businesses’ relationship with air quality.

Energy companies, recycling companies, food production companies and metals companies are among the many industries that can contribute air toxins like formaldehyde, benzene, mercury, carbon and other chemicals. For more than two decades, the Environmental Protection Agency has tried to monitor and regulate air pollution tens of thousands of plants across the country. This year, more than 1,600 plants were deemed to warrant urgent action, a recent NPR article says.

With so much data to sift through, reporters may find it daunting to get started on covering air pollution. For inspiration, check out joint coverage by The Center for Public Integrity and National Public Radio on extensive air pollution coverage this week, “Secret ‘Watch List’ Reveals Failure To Curb Toxic Air.”  You’ll see that, just as in covering water and land stories, starting with the Environmental Protection Agency and its “watch list” of air polluters can yield a wealth of stories. Some of the companies are serious polluters while other may have only permit delinquencies.

NPR and the CPI posted a spreadsheet of 464 facilities that compares the plants’ September status with their July status. Reporters easily determine which companies remained on the list of emissions violators, and which improved their pollution performance, distinctions which are color-coded on the document. For example, Aker Plant in Streetman, Texas, was just added to the list while General Engines Companies in Lake Wales, Fla., dropped off. You even can sort the spreadsheet by zip code for local data.

For a few more tools, check out The World Health Organization’s website, which has a fact sheet on the impact of air pollution on health, or National Geographic’s overview on how air pollution causes climate change, which includes official reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And CBS News has crafted an interactive graphic of cities are the most affected by air pollution, that allows you to sort by an air quality index, the sources of smog and other factors.

There are countless stories in analyzing how companies contribute to air pollution, but there are many more in following the companies benefiting from helping companies remedy the problem. For example, Fuel Tech, a public company in Warrensville, Ill., that offers nitrogen oxide-reduction technology, recently reported an 18.8 percent surge in its revenue, with earnings beating estimates. What factors are driving that increase? Are companies investing more to cut back on their emissions?

Finally, don’t neglect court documents.  Turn to your court system to find out whether companies are fighting cases of emissions violations and whether and how they are held accountable. For example, The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently followed case on United Ethanol, which converts corn into ethanol, as it received a $700,000 fine for air pollution violations. If the EPA’s “watch list” of 1,600 plants is any indicator, there is likely no shortage of similar stories in your state.

About the Author

Rebecca L. McClay is managing editor of www.creditunions.com and a contributor to Trefis, a financial analysis website. She recently interned for MarketWatch in San Francisco and Bloomberg in New York and was previously a business writer at The Gazette of Business & Politics in Maryland. She has been published in The Arizona Republic, The Wall Street Journal, The Baltimore Sun and more. Rebecca has been contributing articles to businessjournalism.org since 2009.

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