Air quality scares Pascagoula residents

From the Sun Herald:

A neighborhood along Bayou Casotte, in the heart of the state’s most industrialized county, has been co-existing with industry for decades.

But in the last two years, things have changed.

A sticky dust blows in and there’s a strong acrid smell that lingers day and night. Residents with heart or immune problems are reporting breathing issues.

Neighbors say when they mow their lawns, the dust that’s kicked up burns eyes, noses and skin. There is silica, cadmium, aluminum and other metals in soil samples. Smells persist.

Unfortunately the article doesn’t suggest any ideas about why the problem has suddenly appeared, or become worse, in the past two years. This is a classic externality problem, where production by industry creates a negative effect (air pollution) on a third party (the nearby residents).

Apparently the nearby industries have met with neighborhood representatives and have undertaken some actions, but one woman says that no one is taking responsibility:

She said Mississippi Phosphates came to her house with an air monitor to tell her the problem wasn’t theirs.

VT Halter shipbuilding has met with her several times. It responded to a call on May 14 and determined a smell she reported was not coming from Halter.

All the industry say they’re meeting air-permit requirements.

 

So one problem is that the source of the pollution can’t be identified, at least not by residents, without additional help. This makes it harder for different parties (the residents) to unite their voices against the polluter because the specific polluter is unknown.
A second problem is that the industries are meeting their air-permit requirements so they have little incentive to cut emissions further because it is costly to do so.
The¬†Coase Theorem¬†states that, under certain conditions, parties (here, the residents and the industries) can get together and solve an externality problem without any government or policy intervention. But one of those conditions is that the people negatively affected by the externality can get together and bargain with the polluter. Because the polluter can’t be identified, and because there are many people negatively affected by the pollution (which makes coordination challenging), this condition is hard to meet in this case. Policy intervention may therefore indeed be the best course of action…although I’m not saying there is or isn’t a need for it in this case specifically.