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By Pat Ware
About 3.93 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the environment nationwide in 2010, a 16 percent increase from 2009, according to an Environmental Protection Agency analysis of toxic chemical release data released Jan. 5.
The increase is mainly due to changes in the metal mining sector, which usually involves large facilities handling large volumes of material, EPA said. In metal mining, even a small change in the chemical composition of the ore being mined may lead to big changes in the amount of toxic chemicals being reported nationally, the agency said.
The chemical and primary metals industries also reported increases in toxic releases in 2010, EPA said.
Other possible reasons for an increase include changes in management methods, changes in release estimation methods, changes in production, increases in chemical use, or a change in the composition of the economy, the analysis said.
Total releases in 2010 were also higher than in 2008 but lower than in 2007 and previous years, EPA said. Many of the toxic releases are regulated under EPA programs and requirements to limit harm to humans and the environment, EPA said.
Under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, covered facilities are required to report by July 1 to EPA and to the states releases of certain chemicals that exceed a certain threshold. Among the industries required to report are manufacturing, metal mining, electric utilities, and commercial hazardous waste facilities.
EPA enters the data into the Toxics Release Inventory database, which currently covers more than 665 chemicals. The inventory is designed to provide citizens, emergency planners, public health officials, and others with the data they need to make decisions about the health and welfare of their communities, EPA said.
The 2010 data show that total air releases decreased 6 percent from 2009, continuing a trend seen over the past several years. Industry sectors with the largest decreases in air releases included electric utilities and the plastics and rubber industry, according to the analysis.
The 2009 analysis showed that toxic releases decreased in air by 20 percent over the previous year. In all, there were about 3.37 billion pounds of toxic releases reported in 2009 (34 CRR 1213, 12/20/10).
Releases into surface water in 2010 increased by 9 percent from 2009, primarily due to the metal mining sector, the analysis said. The primary metals sector and the chemicals sector also reported increases.
In 2010, releases of toxic chemicals onto land increased by 28 percent from 2009, EPA said.
Facilities reporting releases decreased by 2 percent from 2009, EPA said. This could be because they closed, reduced toxic releases, are not reporting, or for other reasons, the analysis said.
EPA said it improved this year's TRI national analysis report by adding new information on facility efforts to reduce pollution and by considering whether economic factors could have affected the TRI data.
Sofia Plagakis, a policy analyst with OMB Watch, a research and advocacy organization, praised the transparency of the analysis, which provided information in a more useful format than just listing the numbers.
This year's analysis contained new information on risks and facilities' efforts to reduce pollution, she said. “Such increased transparency pushes the information out to the communities most impacted by toxic pollution. We hope this information will enable citizens to come together to hold facilities accountable,” she said.
In addition, “It's very telling that toxic releases into the air have decreased,” she said.
The organization is concerned, however, over the large increase in toxic releases from 2009 and the increase in toxic releases to surface water and land, Plagakis said.
In addition, OMB Watch is concerned that for the ninth consecutive year the number of facilities reporting toxic releases has decreased. While the reason could be benign, “the concern is that some facilities that should be reporting are not,” she said.
The 2010 TRI analysis is available at http://www.epa.gov/tri/NationalAnalysis/index.htm .
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