The Air Here Sucks: The Super Polluters Ruining North America

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people waiting with mouth masks

Air pollution sucks. It stinks, causes health problems and damages the environment. The effects of global warming can be seen all around us, from melting polar ice caps to hotter weather that encourages pine beetle population growth. What’s worse is that industrial air pollution is overwhelmingly caused by a handful of companies, inspiring the Center for Public Integrity to launch a nine-month investigation into the “super polluters” at large.

(Sidebar: did you know we have a Center for Public Integrity?! They must be working overtime these days.)

Some North American industries apparently don’t think breathing is a necessity and would rather focus on their bottom line while pumping toxic air into our atmosphere. Here are some of the super polluters who don’t deserve to hide behind the fog:

SRPS Northern Arizona Coal Plant

Coal plants across America cause millions of pounds of air pollution. In some places, the pollution is so bad that is causes heart problems, fatal asthma attacks and cancer, among other things. The SRPS Northern Arizona Coal Plant is particularly guilty and was cited as one of the largest air polluters in the country.

While many organizations, researchers and companies are looking for viable coal alternatives, we are far from fixing the problem. Until then, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlined a Clean Power Plan to help protect the air we breathe, though many states are resistant to the plan and are even taking legal action to avoid it. It remains to be seen if the plan will be upheld under Trump.

ExxonMobil and BP

detail of smoking chimneys of a petrochemical factory in an oil refinery

Oil refiners are another source of heavy pollution in North America. In the process of making gasoline and chemicals, ExxonMobil and BP release tens of millions of tons of air pollution per year. The EPA has started to demand that these high polluters install technology to filter mercury and other toxins from their emissions before they leave factory smokestacks.

Coal still provides approximately 40% of America’s electricity but more and more energy companies are leaning towards cleaner natural gas plants—if only these heavy hitters would follow suit.

Northrop Grumman

Industrial pollution is plentiful where Northrop Grumman’s facilities reside. The air and groundwater quality suffer when companies like Northrop allow volatile organic compounds to seep into the ecosystem.

You would think an aerospace and defense technology company would have a bit more wherewithal when it comes to pollution. It may be the fifth-largest defense contractor in the world in 2015, but it sure doesn’t know how to defend the planet we depend on for survival.

Artisanal Gold Mining

Silhouettes of worker in a mine.

It may not be an industry that springs to mind when you think of air pollution, but artisanal gold mining causes harmful effects to the air, ground and water surrounding the site, and puts workers and their families at risk. Dangerous chemicals like mercury are used to extract metals from the mines, which are used liberally and, often, improperly.

Much of the time, the miners are forced to work in dangerous and poorly regulated conditions due to social and economic marginalization—putting them at risk of sickness, chronic health conditions and even death. The fact that the mining process also pollutes natural resources only amplifies the problem.

The Takeaway

Air pollution sucks. Until we colonize Mars, we all need to live on this planet together. In the coming years, the way we address climate change is going to make or break us as a global community. It’s time to stand up and tell the government and these industries that, believe it or not, we kind of like being able to breathe.

If you don’t want to move to Mars just yet, share your voice with thousands of others on a site like, or Join the conversation today.

Photos: Flickr/ friendsoftheearthscotland, Shutterstock / Christian Kobierski, Shutterstock / iurii


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