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On Your Side Investigation: People in small Ozarks town might have a greater risk of cancer linked to chemical plant

Published: Nov. 16, 2021 at 9:43 PM CST
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VERONA, Mo. (KY3) - Where you live might help determine your risk of getting cancer.

New analysis shows there are several hot spots across the country caused by industrial air pollution.

ProPublica is a non-profit, investigation journalism team that worked for two years to put this map together. The data they used was collected by the plants themselves from 2014 to 2018 and reported to the government.

Twenty sites stand out as the most toxic. One of them is Verona, a small town in Lawrence County. According to this data, one chemical plant is to blame for the lifetime cancer risk, twenty-seven times the EPA’s acceptable exposure.

“When I started getting really bad with my breathing, my daughter said you need to move up there with us. She talked me into it,” said Judy Pennington.

Pennington used to live in Verona. She moved to Lebanon. She’s down the road from the hospital.

“I have a CPAP I have to sleep with at night. I have a nebulizer machine I have to use to take breathing treatments. I have two of the little puffer things that I use,” she said.

Pennington stopped smoking about twenty years ago, but was recently was put on oxygen 24/7.

“I’ve got COPD which I think is the main thing from those plants,” she said.

In the 1960s the plant made Agent Orange. In the early 1980s, her father was a security guard there.

“He ended up with cancer in his intestines,” said Pennington.

The plant was acquired by Syntex. Dioxin was found. In 1983 it was deemed as a superfund site. In the early 2000s, BCP Ingredients took over. BCP manufactures food additives for feed. The data shows the plant is releasing ethylene oxide. It’s linked to cases of cancer, especially breast cancer.

Peggy Paynter is a cancer survivor. She lives a few blocks away from the plant.

“I’ve breathed this air all my life,” said Paynter. “My neighbor behind me passed away with liver cancer. There was a younger guy, 46-years-old, liver cancer. I had breast cancer in 2004.”

Her grandparents lived in this house.

“I think of my grandchildren that’s coming on. What are we going to do to stop it?” she cried.

ProPublica’s analysis of federal data has never been done before, not even by the government agency that collects it.

An EPA employee for three decades who oversaw this data told our partners at ProPublica, “They always told us don’t make a big deal out of it. They didn’t want to make anything public that would raise questions about why the EPA hadn’t done anything to regulate a {particular} facility.” - Wayne Davis, Former EPA Scientist.

Another former EPA employee told ProPublica, “What I find annoying is that the EPA has the same information at their disposal, and they don’t use it.” Nicolaas Bouwes, Former Senior Analyst, EPA.

“I think EPA ain’t honest about a lot of things,” said Joseph Heck, the mayor of Verona.

“In layman’s terms, I think the EPA is full of sh**! They had it. They knew!,” said Mayor Heck.

EPA officials declined our request for an on-camera interview, but wrote in an email:

“We are on task to improve our data on emissions of toxic air pollution, communicate risks to the public, develop regulatory solutions, and deliver pollution reductions for American communities.”

Mayor Heck says too little, too late. His wife has breast cancer.

“If I would have known that BCP was contributing to cancer cases, for me, myself, I would have found somewhere else to take my family to live,” said Mayor Heck.

On Your Side has repeatedly reached out to the company for comment. We’ve called and emailed headquarters in New York. We have not heard back.

ProPublica points out, this data cannot be used to tie individual cancer cases to emissions from specific industrial facilities.

Missouri State Representative Mitch Boggs wants the problem fixed, but says there’s not an easy solution.

“Where do you put a factory that’s that way? Do you find a spot where there is no one around to put a factory of that type? But then you got to have workers to come in. Can Verona afford to lose that many jobs?” he asked.

The EPA also told us in that statement that BCP started testing air pollution control equipment, identified other sources of ethylene oxide emissions, and installed wastewater treatment equipment to reduce ethylene oxide.

“Hopefully BCP does the right thing to get this under control,” said Mayor Heck.

Last month, another government agency, the U.S. Department of Labor proposed fines of $300,000 against BCP Ingredients. Twenty-four citations for serious safety and health violations.

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