EPA Says Toxic Releases, Wastes Declined in 2001

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, June 30, 2003 (ENS) - U.S. industries released 15 percent fewer toxic chemicals and generated 22 percent less toxic waste in 2001 than they did a year earlier, according to new data released today by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency says these figures illustrate a continuing decline in the amount of wastes released into the nation's air, land and water, but environmentalists caution that the EPA's data only provides part of the picture.

The data was collected under the framework of the federal Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), established by Congress in 1986 as the nation's community right to know program. It finds that U.S. industries released some 6.16 billion pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment and managed 27 billion pounds of toxic waste in 2001.

The TRI includes information on releases and other waste management methods for 667 toxic chemicals.

Although this total is less than one percent of chemicals registered for use and represents a limited range of sources, the TRI is widely considered the most comprehensive source of information on toxic pollution in the United States.

The TRI program is "one of the most important activities EPA completes each year," according to Acting EPA Administrator Linda Fisher.

"It is a tool that gives the American public information on chemical releases for their communities so that they can make informed decisions about protecting their environment.," said Fisher in a prepared statement.

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Environmentalists welcome the insights provided by the Toxics Release Inventory, but caution that it has large gaps in information. (Photo courtesy Southern Oregon University)
The data collected under the TRI program are based on reports from manufacturing industries, metal mines, certain coal mining activities, electrical utilities that burn coal or oil, hazardous waste treatment and disposal facilities, chemical wholesale distributors, petroleum bulk plants and terminals and solvent recovery services.

It does not include releases from pollution sources like oil wells, airports and waste incinerators, or other sources of exposure to chemicals, such as chemicals placed in consumer products.

Of the 6.16 billion pounds of toxic chemicals released into the environment in 2001, 65 percent were released to land on and off site, 27 percent were released into the air, four percent to water and four percent to underground injection on- and off-site.

The metal mining industry reported the largest total release of toxic chemicals, accounting for 45 percent of the nation's total, followed by the electric utilities industries with 17 percent and the chemical industry with 9.5 percent.

Nevada released some 783 million pounds of toxic chemicals, more than any other state. Utah was second with 767 million pounds, followed by Arizona with 607 million pounds and Alaska with 522 million pounds.

Twenty chemicals accounted for 88 percent of the total release, with copper compounds totaling some one billion pounds and zinc compounds some 960 million pounds. Some 422 million pounds of lead and lead compounds were released in 2001 - the first year facilities were held to a 100 pound threshold for lead.

The standard requirement for industries subject to the TRI is that any facility manufacturing or processing 25,000 pounds of a chemical regulated under TRI, or otherwise using 10,000 pounds of such a chemical, has to report its releases and wastes.

But the standards are stricter for a group of some 20 persistent bioaccumulative toxic (PBT) chemicals, which are considered more hazardous as they remain in ecosystems for long periods of time, and accumulate in animal and human tissues.

The threshold for reporting of PCB chemicals, which dioxins, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and others, was lowered in 1999 to 10 pounds or 100 pounds.

In 2001, total PBT chemical releases totaled 454.4 million pounds, with lead and lead compounds comprising 97 percent of the total. Environmentalists note that with the lower threshold, much of the reported lead represents previously unreported pollution.

"It is a victory for the public interest that these companies are finally reporting their lead pollution," said Jeremiah Baumann, environmental health advocate for U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "We have known for centuries that lead is highly toxic, and more study has only shown that it is more toxic, and toxic at lower and lower exposure levels. It is now the 21st century, and high time for these companies to start reducing their use of lead."

Absent lead, PBT chemicals decreased by some two percent compared to last year, despite a 50 percent increase in the total releases of dioxin and dioxin-like compounds.

In today's prepared statement, the EPA wrote that the overall long term trend is that levels of dioxin are decreasing and suggests that the increase in 2001 was in part due to one time maintenance at several facilities.

The reporting industries managed a total of 27 billion pounds of toxic waste, with Texas, Louisiana and Illinois accounting for 30 percent of nation's total.

The chemical industry was responsible 40 percent of the nation's toxic waste, with the primary metals industry accounting for 12 percent and the metals mining industry for 11 percent. incinerator

Some 1.68 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the air in 2001. (Photo courtesy Lake Michigan Federation)
Lead and lead compounds accounted for 96 percent of the 1.23 billion pounds of PBT related waste.

The 22 percent decrease in toxic waste of from 2000 to 2001 comes on the heels of a 25 percent increase from 1999 to 2000.

Mercury is one toxic that increased from 2000 to 2001 both in totals released and managed. The EPA reports that 4.9 million pounds of mercury and mercury compounds were released into the environment and 5.8 million pounds of mercury contaminated wastes were managed in 2001, compared to 4.3 million pounds released and 4.9 million pounds managed in 2000.

This finding comes as environmentalists and some Democrats continue to criticize the Bush administration for its "Clear Skies" initiative, which they believe would relax federal efforts to curb mercury pollution. There is increasing evidence that mercury poses health risks to pregnant women and their children.

Some fear that some pollution from the mining industry might not be included in future TRI reports, as the Bush administration is not fighting a judge's decision to allow mining companies to stop reporting non PBT toxic chemicals in waste rock if they do not exceed a concentration of one percent.

"We expect that the Bush administration's decision will allow the nation's most toxic industry to just stop reporting half their pollution," said Baumann. "But half of 2.8 billion pounds is hardly trifling. EPA should issue new rules eliminating the exemption or clarifying that it cannot be used to hide millions of pounds of pollution." The entire TRI database is available and searchable at http://www.epa.gov/tri.