North America Shifts Pollution from Air to Land

MONTREAL, Canada, May 31, 2002 (ENS) - Factories, electric utilities, hazardous waste management facilities and coal mines in the United States and Canada generated almost 3.4 million metric tonnes of toxic chemical waste in 1999, shows an annual report from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation of North America. The wastes included 269,000 tonnes of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive problems.

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Hazardous waste is removed from a contaminated site in the United States. (Photo courtesy U.S. EPA)
The report, "Taking Stock" is based on reports submitted to the national pollutant release and transfer registers of Canada and the U.S. by industry, and includes data on 210 chemical substances. This year, the study also presents the first five year analysis of pollution releases and management.

The five year trend shows a slight overall change in the total of toxic chemicals generated, but big changes in how those pollutants are handled. The North American manufacturing sector's 25 percent (153,000 tonnes) reduction in releases to air was offset by a 25 percent (33,000 tonnes) increase in on site releases to land and a 35 percent (58,000 tonnes) increase in off site releases, mostly to landfills.

Releases to lakes, rivers and streams also increased during this period by 26 percent (24,000 tonnes).

"'Out of the air, into the water and land' emerges as a major trend from our five year analysis," said Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) executive director Janine Ferretti. "North America's progress in reducing toxic releases to air must continue but it also must be matched by reductions in water and land releases."

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An overfilled waste disposal drum in U.S. EPA Superfund site at the E-Z Chemical Company in Pennsylvania. (Photo courtesy U.S. EPA)
The CEC is an international organization created by Canada, Mexico and the United States under the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation. The Agreement complements the environmental provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The CEC was established to address regional environmental concerns, help prevent potential trade and environmental conflicts, and to promote the enforcement of environmental law. Its annual report on chemical wastes helps NAFTA partners set goals for reducing chemical pollution.

"Overall, the total reported amount of chemicals released changed little over the five years," Ferretti added. "The findings in this new report should prompt all of us - industry, government, environmental groups and citizens - to ask what can be done to get all of the trends pointing in a downward direction."

The CEC report signals a general decrease in on site releases - chemicals put into the air, water or otherwise disposed of inside a facility's fence - and a corresponding increase in amounts of chemicals transferred for disposal. Ferretti said that the growing shipment of toxic substances off site could indicate a desire to send wastes to locations that are better equipped to manage them.

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Tank farm at Pennsylvania's Douglassville Disposal Superfund Site. (Photo courtesy U.S. EPA)
Or, she said, it could signal that most companies are still reluctant to prevent pollution at its source instead of managing pollutants after they are already produced.

Among other findings in the report:

Cross border chemical traffic decreased in 1999 from the previous year. Just four percent of all waste transfers in the U.S. went outside the country, and most of these were sent for recycling in Canada. The U.S. sent 31,000 tonnes to sites in Canada, most of which went to Ontario and Quebec, and 27,000 tonnes to sites in Mexico.

Incinerators, like this one in Chicago, Illinois, are among the largest sources of chemicals known as dioxins. (Photo courtesy Lake Michigan Federation)
"Taking Stock" is produced by the CEC - the Montreal based environmental body established by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) partners - from data collected by the national governments of Canada and the United States. Reporting of data for Mexico is not yet mandatory, though legislation to collect this data was passed in Mexico late last year, and 117 Mexican facilities reported their chemical releases voluntarily.

"Mexico has made tremendous progress in passing enabling legislation for a mandatory and publicly accessible chemical reporting system," Ferretti said. "This important step helps set the stage for industries to track chemicals, citizens to learn about neighborhood facilities, and governments to gain an improved picture of chemical pollution."

The data collected by the national governments do not currently include all chemicals, nor all sources of pollution such as dry cleaners, service stations, cars and trucks. Also not covered, due to differences in national reporting, are releases from the mining industry.

The full report is available at: http://www.cec.org/takingstock