U.S. Industrial Facilities Reported Fewer Toxic Releases in 2014

The Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data for 2014 is now available. The good news: total toxic releases by reporting facilities decreased by nearly six percent from 2013 levels. However, several states saw a spike in emissions, including Rhode Island and Alaska

The Center for Effective Government has updated our Right-to-Know Network database, where you can find the 2014 TRI data and search for toxic emitters in your community.

2014 at a glance

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires certain industrial facilities to annually report their toxic releases into our air, water, and soil, as well as waste that is transferred offsite. The EPA provides this information in a searchable database and also analyzes the trends in its National Analysis reports. 

In 2014, facilities reporting to TRI released 3.8 billion pounds of toxic substances into our environment. The metal mining industry once again topped the charts for the largest share of toxic releases – 1.7 billion pounds. This is, incredibly, a ten percent decrease from 2013 levels.

Metal mining produces significant toxic hazards. The largest releases included zinc, lead, and arsenic compounds (ranging from 766 million to 680 million to 129 million pounds of emissions). These are naturally-occurring compounds that are extracted during gold and other metal mining and then disposed of in landfills. Zinc is harmful to humans in large enough amounts and accumulates in the tissues of aquatic life. Arsenic is poisonous, and even small amounts of lead can harm children’s developing brains.

While metal mining saw a reduction in releases, other industries reported a spike from 2013 levels. The leather industry reported the largest percentage increase in releases (over 60 percent). The petroleum industry had the largest volume increase (9.2 million pounds, or a 12 percent increase). Both industries release harmful substances like toluene and ammonia.

The geography of toxic releases

Source: The Right-to-Know Network, Center for Effective Government

As in previous years, Alaska ranked number one for total toxic releases – 1.1 billion pounds, a 20 percent increase from 2013. The lion’s share came from metal mining, with 99 percent of waste disposed of in landfills (often located at the mining sites).

Nevada and Utah ranked second and fourth, respectively, and also have several metal mines. Texas ranked third with 238 million pounds of releases. The petroleum industry plays a major role in Texas, both from petroleum refining and fossil fuel generation. Refining and burning petroleum releases toxic substances into the air and nearby waterways, poisoning wildlife and threatening water supplies. This includes toxic heavy metals like barium.

Rhode Island reported the largest percentage increase (27 percent) in reported releases of any state. Here, metal manufacturing and chemical manufacturing contribute the most emissions. Utah saw the largest percentage decrease (60 percent) from 2013, with the state’s metal mining releases cut by more than half.

You can find a more detailed analysis of the causes and impacts of these trends from EPA’s 2014 TRI National Analysis report.

TRI is an important tool, but it should be expanded

TRI provides a basic overview of toxic releases in our country and can help citizens understand toxic hazards in their communities. However, it is not a complete picture since certain industries are exempt from reporting. The oil and gas extraction industry does not currently report to TRI, despite its prevalence and the fact that it pollutes our environment with cancer-causing substances like benzene and toluene.

This may soon change. Following a lawsuit filed by several public interest organizations (including the Center for Effective Government), the EPA confirmed that it will issue a rulemaking to add natural gas processing plants to TRI. The rulemaking will not, however, add smaller facilities (those with fewer than 10 employees) or pipelines, well sites, and other similar infrastructure.

The rulemaking will also include a public comment period where the natural gas industry and its allies will likely oppose the rule, and the EPA must take all public comments into consideration before issuing a final rule. The agency should commit to completing the rulemaking process as swiftly as possible and ensure that the final rule will put communities’ right to information first. 

The Right-to-Know movement

In 1984, a catastrophic leak at the Union Carbide pesticide facility in Bhopal, India killed 8,000 nearby residents and injured over a hundred thousand more. The tragedy served as a wake-up call to U.S. regulators who recognized the need for greater facility oversight. Two years later, Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), requiring certain hazardous facility to report to the EPA and also mandating that local governments create emergency response plans.

The Center for Effective Government has maintained the Right-to-Know Network (RTK NET) since 1989. When visiting the site, the public can access TRI and other databases related to sources of toxic chemicals in a user-friendly format. For example, users can search releases by parent company and congressional district. They can also access state summary pages depicting total releases for the year, where they were released (land, water, soil), and what companies reported the greatest volume of releases.

The TRI database is a key tool for providing the public with information on toxic pollution. To truly fulfill the tool’s purpose under EPRCA, the EPA should continue to expand TRI by including more industry sectors and chemicals.

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