EPA Reports Overall Decrease In Toxic Chemicals Released Into Environment

The amount of toxic chemicals released into the environment decreased four percent from 2003 to 2004, with the metal mining sector, hazardous waste/solvent recovery facilities and electric utilities reporting the largest decreases in releases, EPA announced on April 12.

According to the agency's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), more than 4.24 billion pounds were released to the environment in 2004, a 4-percent decrease from 2003.

"Today's report demonstrates that economic growth and effective environmental protection can go hand-in-hand," said Linda Travers, acting assistant administrator for the Office of Environmental Information. "We are encouraged to see a continued reduction in the overall amount of toxic chemicals being released into the environment."

The agency stated that significant decreases were seen in some of the most toxic chemicals from 2003-2004.

  • Dioxin and dioxin compounds, which decreased by 58 percent
  • Mercury and mercury compounds, which were cut by 16 percent
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) went down 92 percent.

The TRI program collects information on the disposal or other releases and other waste management activities for more than 650 chemicals from industrial sources in all 50 states and the U.S. territories. The information has been collected annually since 1987. For 2004, the latest year for which data are available, disposal or other releases of TRI chemicals were reported from 23,600 U.S. facilities submitting almost 90,000 chemical forms.

TRI tracks the chemicals and industrial sectors specified by the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA) and its amendments. The Pollution Prevention Act (PPA) of 1990 also mandates that TRI reports must include data on toxic chemicals treated on-site, recycled, and burned for energy recovery. Together, these laws require facilities in certain industries to report annually on releases, disposal and other waste management activities related to these chemicals.

Based on the definition of release in Section 329 of EPCRA, facilities that place TRI chemicals in on-site underground injection wells, landfills, surface impoundments, or send them off-site to other facilities for placement in underground injection wells, landfills, and/or surface impoundments are considered to have disposed of or otherwise released these chemicals. Metals sent to publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) or other waste treatment facilities also are included. Other ways facilities release TRI chemicals is by air emissions and discharges to water bodies.

EPA's 2004 TRI reporting includes toxics managed in landfills and underground injection wells in addition to those released into water and air and releases or other disposals of persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) chemicals. PBT chemicals include dioxin and dioxin-like compounds, PCBs, mercury and mercury compounds, lead and lead compounds, and several pesticides. The amount of toxic chemicals released into the environment has declined 45 percent since 1998, EPA officials stated. It is important to review the full data in context, since in many cases changes from one year to the next are less important than longer term trends, according to the agency.

While government officials are encouraged by the latest TRI findings, environmental groups said that the data is more troubling than reassuring.

"The bad news is toxic releases have increased in three major industrial sectors: paper, the food industry and from petroleum refineries," said Tom Natan, PhD, director of research for the National Environmental Trust. "Even worse, EPA is rewriting the rules for reporting toxics releases to favor polluters."

Officials with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) said that EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson proposed changes to the TRI program in October 2005 that will significantly decrease the information that the public and state and local officials have about harmful chemicals released into water, air and land.

For additional information on the 2004 TRI public data release, go to http://www.epa.gov/tri/tridata/tri04/index.htm.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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