Toxic Industrial Releases Rose 14 Percent in 2013, Primarily Due to Metal Mining Wastes

Data from the Toxics Release Inventory released last month reveals significant increases in toxic pollution across the country in 2013. Toxins released from industrial facilities into surrounding communities increased by more than 500 million pounds, or 14 percent, between 2012 and 2013.  This is the most significant increase in toxins in years. (See our Right-to-Know Network (RTK NET) website).

The Polluting Industries

In 2013, facilities reporting to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) discharged  half a billion more pounds of toxins into our air, water, and soil than the year before – an annual total of 4.1 billion pounds. The metal mining industry was largely responsible. Alone, it released 518 million more pounds in 2013 than the previous year (an increase of 35 percent). Other industry sectors with large increases included electrical utilities (28 million pounds, a 5.6 percent increase); chemical manufacturing (5.1 million pounds, a one percent increase) and petroleum bulk terminals (4.5 million pounds, a 242 percent increase).

A few industries reported declines, but not enough to offset the much more sizable increases seen in metal mining, utilities, and chemical manufacturing. The hazardous waste/solvent recovery industry reduced its toxic releases by 14.2 million pounds, or 8.9 percent; primary metals reduced its toxins by 13.5 million pounds, or 3.7 percent, and fabricated metals reduced its toxins by 4.3 million pounds, or 10.6 percent.

But the overall increase tells a disturbing story of a shift in the wrong direction on industrial pollution.

The Geography of Toxins

Alaska released the most toxins in 2013: 970 million pounds. Nearly all of this waste came from the metal mining industry, which is extremely active there. Utah and Nevada rank second and third, respectively, also due to active metal mining.

Mining companies typically dispose of wastes through on-site landfills, and the waste often contains zinc and lead compounds. Because of the enormous amount of waste generated by mines, zinc and lead compounds have topped the list of toxic releases over the past several years. Although zinc is an essential mineral, it can be harmful to humans in large amounts and can bioaccumulate in aquatic life. Lead is not safe for human consumption at any level, and exposure is linked to lowered IQ levels in children and a variety of diseases in adults.  

EPA’s National Analysis report, released earlier this month, provides a more detailed analysis of the causes and impacts of these trends

What’s Missing

TRI is supposed to be a tool to allow citizens and community residents to understand the hazards they may face living near industrial facilities, but it presents an incomplete picture because not all industries are required to report.

Particularly troubling is the exemption for oil and gas extraction. Despite the fact that hazardous chemicals are released by oil and gas drilling processes, and despite the exponential increase in drilling in recent years, oil and gas extraction companies are not required to report their toxic releases under TRI.

Two years ago, the Center for Effective Government and 16 public interest organizations petitioned the EPA to include the oil and gas extraction industry under TRI reporting requirements. Advocates estimate that the industry releases 127,000 tons of air pollutants annually, including many hazardous chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde, both of which can cause acute health effects. Both chemicals are included in the Toxics Release Inventory, but the oil and gas industry reports on neither.

EPA never responded to the petition. On Jan 7, 2015, nine organizations (including the Center for Effective Government) filed a lawsuit against EPA that would require the agency to respond.

The Community’s Right to Know

The TRI dataset was established under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986 in response to the 1984 Union Carbide chemical catastrophe in Bhopal, India. In that incident, a poisonous cloud was released from a pesticide facility, killing 8,000 residents of a nearby town and injuring over a hundred thousand more. The tragedy underscored the need for greater oversight of facilities using toxic chemicals. Congress’ response was to pass EPCRA, which required some hazardous facilities to report to EPA and mandated that local governments create chemical emergency response plans.

Since 1989, the Center for Effective Government has gathered TRI information into a more user-friendly database, available at the Right-to-Know Network (RTK NET). The site allows users to identify the levels of toxic chemicals released near their homes and the facility from which they come. Interactive maps are available to visually examine the distribution of certain toxins.

Last month marked the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal tragedy. While we've made much progress to improve chemical safety standards in the U.S., more work remains. EPA should expand reporting requirements on toxic pollutants and increase investigations at hazardous facilities. Unfortunately, we are likely to see more severe budget cuts at the already under-resourced and overburdened agency over the next two years, which will constrain EPA's ability to do more to protect the American people from toxic pollution.

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great article, well written chad edward hatten
great point, chad hatten
I live in Nevada and have watched the devistation with a first row seat. Canadian/UK mines work fron the western States mining tax law of 1872 where they pay no royalties on gold they mine. What do our citizens get for poison air and water? 1.7 million to the state, I don't even think that pays for a school fo their employees kids never mind the other essential services. Now let's talk about the crimes against the U.S. Citizens. Utah has one of the highest autism syndrome rate in the country due to large arsenal mines heavy metal poisoning. The corporation hide their crimes due to Nevada's aired climate that allows large amounts of pollution to be hidden in the soil then blow down wind allowing plausible deniability for their crimes.