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Over 30 air pollution “hotspots” in North Carolina have elevated cancer rates, per ProPublica study

A neighborhood in Morganton is among more than 30 hotspots in North Carolina where air toxics contribute to elevated cancer risks for neighboring residents. Roughly 33,000 people live in the hotspot. Those living closest to SGL Carbon face a lifetime elevated cancer risk of 120 times greater than set by the EPA. (Map: ProPublica)

The hundreds of people who live closest to SGL Carbon in Morganton are breathing air so polluted that they face a lifetime cancer risk 120 times greater than set by the EPA. Each year, SGL is allowed by state permit to emits nearly a ton of methylene chloride and 174 pounds of benzene, both known carcinogens

The area near the plant is one of thousands of “hotspots” identified by ProPublica, which yesterday unveiled a massive environmental story that mapped the spread of cancer-causing chemicals from sources of hazardous air pollution across the country between 2014 and 2018.

Of the thousands of “hotspots” in the U.S. — not just census tracts, but down to the neighborhood level — there are more than 30 in North Carolina. (See list below.)

Over the last two years, ProPublica analyzed billions of rows of data and used advanced data processing software and a modeling tool developed by the EPA to calculate the elevated cancer risks for people living in these hotspots. The data includes only air pollution; there could be other pollution sources — PFAS, for example — that compound that risk. For example, near the SGL Carbon plant in Morganton there are four hazardous waste sites, as well as multiple leaking underground petroleum storage tanks.

At the most protective level, the EPA considers an elevated lifetime cancer risk to be 1 in 1 million.

That means if 1 million people are exposed to the same concentration of a pollutant continuously (24 hours per day) over 70 years (an assumed lifetime), one person would likely develop cancer from this exposure. This risk would be in addition to any cancer risk for a person not exposed to these air toxics.

The EPA has also set an “upper limit” — or less stringent risk level of 1 in 10,000 elevated lifetime cancer risk, as within the acceptable range. That translates to 100 in 1 million people would likely develop cancer from the exposure.

Nationwide, most of these hotspots are in communities of color, low-income neighborhoods, or both. In North Carolina, that pattern holds: Of the 33 hotspots that ProPublica identified, only two are in neighborhoods that are majority-white and not low-income, according to the NC Department of Environmental Quality Community Mapping System.

Here are the North Carolina hotspots, per the ProPublica air toxics map.

Note: Some facilities have changed names since ProPublica did their analysis, which covers 2014-2018.
Durafiber in Salisbury, identified by ProPublica, has closed, so is not included in this table.
While Fortron, in New Hanover County, has not been cited with Notice of Violation, the facility did receive a “Determination of Objectionable Odor” from the state Division of Air Quality for emitting a “cat urine” smell, as result of its processing.

Additional sources: Division of Air Quality databases, NC DEQ Community Mapping System, local air boards for Mecklenburg, Buncombe and Forsyth counties

Air toxics hotspots

Places in North Carolina that ProPublica have identified as having an elevated cancer risk because of air pollution
CityCountyPrimary facility that is the source of air toxicsAddressEJ community (race/ethnicity)EJ community (income)Notice of Violation, last 10 years (state) 
AuroraBeaufortPCS Phosphate1530 NC Hwy 306YY0
Merry HillBertieAvoca841 Avoca Farm RdYY1
SouthportBrunswickCPI1281 Powerhouse DrNY0
AshevilleBuncombeUnison Engine Components (also known as GE)401 Sweeten Creek Industrial Park RdNY0
MorgantonBurkeSGL Carbon307 Jamestown RdNY0
HarrisburgCabarrusVenator Chemicals5910 Pharr Mill RdNN1
HickoryCatawbaStructural Steel, also known as Division 51115 Old Lenoir RdNY0
Sherills FordCatawbaDuke Energy Marshall Steam Plant8320 NC Hwy 150NY0
VanceboroCravenInternational Paper1785 Weyerhaeuser RdYY1
FayettevilleCumberlandMann & Hummel3200 Natal StYY5
DurhamDurhamGeneral Electric Engine3701 S Miami BlvdYN0
DurhamDurhamSCM Metal Products2601 Weck DrYY0
Winston-SalemForsythCarolina Steel1720 Vargrave StYY0
Mt. HollyGastonClariant625 E Catawba AveYY0
GreensboroGuilfordSolenis2401 Doyle StYY0
CantonHaywoodBlue Ridge Paper Products175 Main StNY6
StatesvilleIredellAsmo (now Densmo)470 Crawford RdNY0
JamesvilleMartinDomtar Paper1435 Weyco DrYY6
CharlotteMecklenburgSteelFab8623 Old Dowd RdYY7
CharlotteMecklenburgGerdau Long Steel6601 Lakeview RdYN1
CharlotteMecklenburgSterigenics10821 Withers Cove Park DrYY1
Rocky MountNash/EdgecombeNew Standard3883 S Church StYYNA
WilmingtonNew HanoverInvista (now Stepan)4600 Hwy 421 NYY1
WilmingtonNew HanoverFortron4600 Hwy 421 NYY0
WilmingtonNew HanoverVertex Railcar (now Terex)202 Raleigh StYYNA
Castle HayneNew HanoverElementis5408 Holly Shelter RdNY0
SemoraPerson/CaswellDuke Energy Roxboro Steam Plant1700 Dunnaway RdNY0
AsheboroRandolphArrow International312 Commerce PlYY0
SalisburyRowanChroma Color100 E 17th StYY0
SalisburyRowanAkzo Nobel Surface Chemistry (now Nouryon)485 Cedar Springs RdYY1
Indian TrailUnionRadiator Specialty Co600 Radiator RdNN0
RaleighWakeMallinckrodt 8801 Capital BlvdYY1
BurnsvilleYanceyAltec Industries150 Altec DriveNY0
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