Releases of Toxic Chemicals Increased By 8 Percent in 2011, EPA Data Show

Total releases and transfers of toxic chemicals in the United States increased by 8 percent from 2010 to 2011 to 4.09 billion pounds, according to a data analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency released Jan. 16.  

The rise in releases is mainly from increases in land disposal at metal mines, where small changes in the composition of the ore being mined can lead to big changes in the amount of toxic chemicals reported nationally, EPA said. Smaller increases in releases occurred in the hazardous waste management sector.

Following a long-term decline in toxic releases, 2011 is the second year in a row in which EPA's Toxics Release Inventory, which collects data on toxic chemicals produced and used at industrial facilities nationwide, has recorded an increase in total on- and off-site disposal or other releases (36 CRR 29, 1/9/12).

Other factors that can affect trends in disposal or other releases of toxics include changes in production, changes in management practices at facilities, and installation of control techniques, EPA said in its 2011 Toxics Release Inventory National Analysis.

Metal Mining Tops Industry Releases

Under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, covered industries are required to report by July 1 each year on releases of certain chemicals into air, water, and land. EPA usually updates the data set through quality checks over several months before releasing its annual analysis, which marks trends in national and local toxic releases and trends in chemicals managed by TRI facilities and examines certain chemicals of interest, industry sectors, parent companies, and geographic areas.

The 2011 data set included information on about 511 chemicals, 16 of which were reported to TRI for the first time (34 CRR 1145, 11/29/10).

The number of facilities reporting to TRI has decreased by 1 percent since 2010.

Of the 26 industries that must report to TRI, nearly half of 2011's total toxic releases originated from mining of metals like copper, lead, and gold, according to the analysis. Metal mining, which typically accounts for the largest share of toxics reported by industries, grew to 46 percent of total releases in 2011.

The data should prompt EPA to issue financial assurance requirements for the metal mining industry, as required by a 2009 court order, Alan Septoff, a spokesman for Earthworks, said in a statement.

“Billions of pounds of pollution requires billions of dollars to clean up,” Septoff said. “If the EPA doesn't act soon to require cleanup bonds, taxpayers could be paying the cleanup bill instead of the polluting mining companies. Meanwhile, our nation's rivers, streams, air and land remain at risk.”

Air Releases Continue to Decline

The 2011 analysis shows that the majority of toxics, 2.44 billion pounds, were released or disposed of on-site to land.

From 2010 to 2011, land releases saw the biggest year-to-year change as a percentage of total releases, climbing by 4 percentage points. The growth in land disposal could be attributed to increased metal mining production, waste rock disposal, and changes in the composition of waste rock in recent years, the analysis said.

Total air releases declined 8 percent from 2010, continuing a downward trend that has reduced toxics in the air by 788 million pounds since 2003, the analysis said. The drop was primarily a result of reductions in hazardous air pollution emissions by electric utilities, EPA said.

“Likely reasons for the decreases include a shift from coal to other fuel sources and installation of control technologies at coal-fired power plants,” the analysis said.

About 220 million pounds of toxics were released or disposed into water, a 4 percent decrease from 2010.

Analysis Highlights Pollution Prevention

In line with EPA's recent spotlight on pollution prevention under TRI, the 2011 analysis featured an expanded discussion of waste managed by facilities (36 CRR 1257, 11/26/12).

Total production-related waste managed, which includes total toxic chemical releases as well as amounts recycled, combusted for energy recovery, and treated on- and off-site, increased to 22.77 billion pounds in 2011, a 4 percent rise from 2010.

Over the past decade, however, total waste managed has dropped by about 17 percent, a possible indication of successful source reduction.

By Andrea Vittorio  

EPA's 2011 Toxics Release Inventory National Analysis is available at