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A national report lists Gainesville as a hotspot for cancer-causing air pollution. Local officials say there’s more to the story.
Kubota Manufacturing - photo by Scott Rogers

A national report from ProPublica lists Gainesville and Kubota as a hotspot for cancer-causing air pollution. Corporate and government officials told The Times this week that there is more to the story and the data behind it.

The ProPublica report highlighted the area in Gainesville surrounding the Kubota Manufacturing of America headquarters, a corporation creating agricultural equipment. ProPublica is a nonprofit organization known for producing investigative journalism. 

The report stated the estimated excess lifetime cancer risk for industrial sources was 1 in 700 or 14 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable risk. The reporting used data from the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, which “tracks the management of certain toxic chemicals that may pose a threat to human health and the environment,” according to the inventory. But Kubota and Georgia officials said the data has been overestimated.

ElringKlinger in Buford also was listed in the report as having a 1 in 2,600 estimated excess lifetime cancer risk or 3.9 times the EPA’s acceptable risk.

The risk-over-time graphic for Kubota included in the report shows a dramatic jump between 2015 and 2016, while the graphic for ElringKlinger spiked between 2016 and 2017.

The Times sent an email to ElringKlinger’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications, Andreas Braendle, to discuss the ProPublica report, but that request was not returned.

Kubota sent a statement to ProPublica that is listed in their report:

“The (Toxics Release Inventory) reports are estimates based on approximate emissions from KMA’s use of steel in its equipment manufacturing process for laser cutting, stamping, bending, and welding. These estimates are calculated by multiplying the percentage of materials listed on the supplier’s material data sheet by the total weight of the steel purchased from the supplier. Accordingly, KMA relies on the supplier’s information with respect to the percentage of minerals contained in the steel purchased. Additionally, not every chemical constituent from steel is released into the environment and most of it is incorporated as an article component."

The Times sent questions to James Boylan, who is in the Department of Natural Resources’ Environmental Protection Division as the assistant branch chief for air protection.

Boylan said the Environmental Protection Division’s own evaluation “indicates that the risk from metal emissions such as chromium and nickel identified in the ProPublica report is significantly overestimated due to assumptions in the Toxic Release Inventory emissions data.”

“Earlier this year EPD submitted comments to the US Environmental Protection Agency on the overestimation of metal emissions for Kubota and other manufacturing facilities in Georgia while reviewing EPA’s draft 2017, 2018, and 2019 national emissions inventory,” Boylan wrote in an email. “EPD determined that metal emissions were approximately 1% of the emissions reported to the (Toxics Release Inventory).”

Boylan also noted that Kubota was exempt from air permitting “due to low air emissions.”

Phil Sutton, Kubota’s chief administrative officer, said Kubota made an internal review in July following contact from ProPublica about their report.

Sutton said that review “found that over a period of time that the calculation errors had gone on.”

“Over the years this data somehow got improperly reported, and quite honestly, nobody said anything to us, whether it was EPD or EPA, and we didn’t notice anything until this thing came up in July,” Sutton said.

The source of the error is in the datasheets provided by the steel supplier, with a change happening between 2015 and 2016, Kubota officials said.

“It’s clear that we didn’t change the steel,” Sutton said. “The steel composition has not changed. Nothing has changed except for the information that was showing on those sheets.”

Boylan said this overestimation of risk from the Toxic Release Inventory data extends to other businesses in the area.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division notified the federal EPA in August and September that the chromium and nickel emissions from Gainesville’s Kubota, Buford’s ElringKlinger and a steel fabricator in Dublin “were overestimated in their draft emissions inventories,” Boylan wrote in an email.

“Other manufacturers and metal fabricators may be impacted by this same overestimation,” Boylan wrote.

Regarding health advisories for people living in the area, Boylan deferred to “public health professionals.”

The Times reached out to Northeast Georgia Health System officials to speak with an expert in this area, but no one was made available as of press time Friday, Nov. 5.

ProPublica noted in its two-year investigation that it had learned some facilities misreported their emissions and reached out to facilities for quality assurance.

“This phenomenon might be explained by a lack of incentive to report the correct quantities,” according to ProPublica’s methodology. “Though companies are required to provide ‘reasonable estimates,’ some of the facilities that we contacted said that they provided overly conservative emissions estimates. The fact that the majority of the errors we learned about were overestimates may be due to a selection bias, as well: Some companies may be under the impression that they are less likely to be disciplined for overreporting and are therefore more likely to disclose these errors than companies that are underreporting. It is not known whether the overall direction of bias in the data collected in the Toxics Release Inventory skews toward over- or underreporting, though some research suggests the latter.”

On its website regarding data, the EPA said it “works continuously to ensure that Toxics Release Inventory data are accurate and reliable.”

Moving forward, Sutton said Kubota is implementing additional reviews to discover any data errors such as this before submitting to regulators.

“We should have caught it, but so should have the government, too,” Sutton said.