Amount of Toxics Released in the U.S. Increased for the Second Year in 2011

by Sofia Plagakis, 1/29/2013

Total releases of toxic chemicals in the U.S. increased for the second year in a row according to Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data reported to and analyzed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The TRI program, established as a part of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986, requires the EPA to make information on the release and transfer of toxic chemicals (above a certain threshold) available to the public in order to provide Americans with a better understanding about toxic pollution in their communities.

The regular disclosure of chemical releases generates enormous public pressure on companies to reduce the waste they produce. As a result, the amount of toxic wastes reported has been dropping steadily for years until recently.

More Carcinogens Counted, More Chemicals Released

In 2011, TRI aggregated information from almost 21,000 facilities across the country and reported on over 600 chemicals, including 16 that were newly classified as carcinogens by the National Toxicology Program and added to the data. Over 4.09 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the environment nationwide, an eight percent (300 million lbs) increase from 2010. The 16 new chemicals accounted for almost 1 million pounds. This is the second year of increases in total toxic releases; the two-year increase erases progress made in 2008 and 2009, leaving the country near the level of toxic releases seen in 2007.

The metal mining industry accounts for the largest increase in toxic releases reported by TRI industries. Toxics released from metal mining facilities increased 28 percent (409 million lbs) from 2010 to 2011. According to EPA, this was the result of small changes in ore and rock composition. Given the massive amount of waste rock generated by mining, even small changes can result in large increases in toxic releases.


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Alaska had the highest TRI releases in the country, due in large part to extensive metal mining activity. The state had a 25 percent increase in releases from last year and accounted for 26 percent of the U.S. total. Vermont had the lowest TRI releases of any of the states reporting to the program.

In 2010, EPA added 16 new cancer-causing chemicals to the list of toxic substances that must be reported to TRI, the first time chemicals had been added to the list since 1999. These chemicals are typically found in industry sectors that manufacture basic organic chemicals, dyes, pigments, plastics, and resins. Twelve of the new chemicals were listed individually, while four were added to the polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAC) category. This category is of special concern because it represents Persistent Bio-Accumulative Toxins (PBT) chemicals, meaning they remain in the environment for long periods of time and the harm from exposure builds up over time. The generation of tetrafluoroethylene, or TFE (a colorless odorless gas used in making plastics), was the highest toxic release of the new chemicals, although the most numerous reports were on isoprene (a chemical used in processing petroleum or coal tar).

Despite the overall increase in toxic releases, total toxic air releases in 2011 declined eight percent from 2010, continuing a trend seen over the past several years. Specific hazardous air pollutants, including hydrochloric acid and mercury, were among the declines in air releases. The agency cited the installation of control technologies at coal-fired power plants and a shift to other fuel sources as reasons for the decrease in air releases. Electric utilities reported a 12 percent drop in toxic releases in 2011, and chemical companies reported a three percent drop.

Although almost 21,000 facilities reported their toxic releases to the EPA, this is the 10th consecutive year in which the number of facilities reporting has decreased. This represents a 16 percent decrease in the number of facilities reporting to TRI since 2001. The agency is unsure why this decrease is occurring. It could represent a decrease or consolidation of chemical plants overall, or more facilities could have dropped below the threshold number of employees and/or amount of toxic releases for required reporting to TRI. Or it could be that an increasing number of facilities are simply failing to comply with reporting requirements. It is troubling that the agency does not know why this decline is occurring.

New Tools to Track Industry Efforts

EPA has improved this year’s national analysis by adding deeper analysis on facilities’ efforts to reduce pollution, insights into why air releases are declining, and expanded analysis of releases on tribal lands. The expanded analysis of the TRI data is a welcome step toward greater transparency and will strengthen the public’s understanding of the toxics that are in their communities.

In 2011, only 12 percent (8,430) of all TRI facilities indicated that they initiated new pollution prevention activities. This represents a slight increase from almost 11 percent (7,976) of facilities that reported initiating pollution prevention in 2010. The report examined the types of pollution prevention activities that were most common, such as good operating practices, modifications to raw materials, processes and products, cleaning and degreasing, and spill and leak prevention. In addition, EPA has a new tracking tool that features facilities that reported that new pollution prevention practices were installed to reduce their releases of toxic chemicals. The public can use the tool to track pollution prevention performance, compare waste management practices of facilities within a sector, and view trends in waste management practices over several years. The tool does not specify the exact activities that were undertaken or their impact but does help identify which companies and industries are taking steps to clean up their operations.

Though not discussed in the findings document, EPA issues several online tools alongside the national analysis that review toxics in several geographic-specific areas, including 13 major urban communities, large aquatic ecosystems, Indian country and Alaska native villages, and states. These tools offer an easy way for the public to review toxic releases in areas of most concern to them. For example, the report on urban communities shows that in the Greater Houston Area, the 492 TRI facilities released or disposed of 81.8 million pounds of toxics in 2011, a nine percent increase since 2010.

Another addition compares TRI and greenhouse gas reporting data. Beginning in 2010, EPA started collecting information on emissions of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Comparisons show, for example, that electric utilities accounted for 32 percent of toxic air emissions reported to TRI in 2011, and they accounted for 73 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2010. Unfortunately, the programs have different reporting thresholds and define sectors differently.

Expanding Right-to Know-Coverage to Other Toxic-Producing Industries

The National Analysis is improving and offering the public better information about the toxics released in their communities. However, the program is limited in that it does not require reporting on all chemicals or reporting by all industry sectors. But the EPA has been slowly expanding its coverage despite intense opposition from chemical producers.

For the first time in over a decade, the EPA has announced it is considering expanding its reporting requirements to new industry sectors. It is considering adding six sectors: Iron Ore Mining, Phosphate Mining, Municipal Waste Incineration, Industrial Dry Cleaning, Petroleum Bulk Storage, and Steam-Only Production from Fossil Fuels.

The EPA is also considering a petition that the Center for Effective Government and 16 local, regional, and national organizations filed, calling on the agency to require the oil and gas industry (including companies engaged in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking) to report their toxic emissions. Currently, oil and gas extraction facilities are not covered under the TRI program, even though they use numerous toxic chemicals and produce tons of hazardous waste. For example, EPA estimates that the industry as a whole emits 127,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants every year, including benzene (known to cause cancer).

There are also efforts to improve the timeliness and accuracy of the data. In 2011, the agency announced a plan to require electronic reporting for all TRI data. Unfortunately, this proposal has yet to be finalized, so facilities may still submit TRI data on paper, which slows analysis.

Conclusion

The TRI program has been, and remains, a vital tool for tracking toxic releases that endanger public health in communities around the country. The second straight year of increases demonstrates that despite years of progress reducing toxic releases, these pollutants remain a major concern. Expansions of the TRI program with additional chemicals and industries are valuable improvements that will maximize the benefits of this program and ensure that we keep a close watch on new chemicals and industries that pose risks to public health.