Metal mining and electric utilities are worst industrial polluters in US

Metal mining and electric utilities emitted nearly two-thirds of the 7.3 billion lbs (3.3142 billion kg) of hazardous pollution reported by US industry in 1998, according to the US EPA.

The addition of seven major industrial sectors – including the metal mining and electric utilities sectors – to the EPA’s latest Toxic Release Inventory (TRI ) means that total toxic emissions for 1998 have almost tripled since 1997. The new total will serve as a baseline for evaluating future trends.

Until the introduction of the new sectors in 1997, only manufacturing facilities were required to report their releases to TRI. The new sectors required to report include electric utilities, coal mining, metal mining, chemical wholesalers, petroleum bulk plants and terminals, solvent recovery and hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal.

In the latest figures, metal mining accounted for the largest share of total emissions: 3.5 billion lbs (1.589 billion kg), or 48% of total emissions. Electric utilities accounted for 15% of total emissions at 1.1 billion lbs (499.4 million kg).

Between them, the two industries outstrip emissions from the manufacturing sector, which in 1998 emitted 1.5 billion lbs (0.68 million kg), or 33% of the total emissions.

The next most polluting sector is that of solvent recovery and hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal which emitted 281.8 million lbs (128 million kg), or four percent of the total.

Coal mining emitted 13.3 million lbs (6 million kg); petroleum bulk plants and terminals 4.7 million lbs (2 million kg); and chemical wholesalers 1.6 million lbs (0.7 million kg).

The 1997 legislation doubled the number of toxic chemicals that must be reported to around 650. Mining facilities, emissions reported in the TRI include heavy metals along with acids and other hazardous substances added to ores during recovery processes. Electric utilities’ emissions include air emissions such as hydrochloric acid, sulphuric acid and hydrogen fluoride. Coal combustion waste discharged to land and water contains heavy metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic and chromium.

The TRI does not include air emissions such as NOx and SO2, pollutants that are at the centre of an ongoing legal dispute between the EPA and a number of electric utilities (see related story).

The reports from 23,487 facilities cover chemical releases within both site boundaries and to the environment at large. On-site releases accounted for 94% of the total emissions. In the metal mining sector, all but 1.3 million lbs (0.59 million kg) of emissions were contained on-site. The problem is worse in the electric utilities sector, where up to 70% of the 1.1 billion lbs emitted was through power station chimneys.

The EPA points out that the manufacturing sector’s emissions have decreased by 90 million lbs (40.86 million kg) since 1997, and by 45% since the publication of the first TRI in 1988. The Agency claims that public availability of TRI data has prompted many facilities to reduce their emissions of toxic chemicals.

Environmentalists agree that TRI has had a role to play in this decline. “The news stories alone generated from this have had the effect of getting corporations to cut back,” Kathryn Hohmann, director of US PIRG’s environmental quality programme told edie. “Also, citizens have met directly with corporations and gotten reductions through public pressure.

However, the EPA has yet to decide whether or not to regulate mercury and other toxic substances emitted by electric utilities. “EPA still has the opportunity this year to take a step toward regulating the mercury from utility smokestacks. We hope they will not miss the boat this time around,” says Becky Stanfield, US PIRG’s Clean Air Advocate. However, Hohmann is not particularly optimistic that TRI will help the cause. “The legislative effort on these folks is ongoing. But it may help,” she says.

The situation is equally dire in the metals mining sector. An anti-environmental rider has been attached to the Senate fiscal year 2001 Agriculture Appropriations bill to block additional environmental regulations on the mining industry (see related story). “The new TRI data is finally making clear what an enormous threat to the environment and public health mining pollution is,” said Lexi Shultz, a staff attorney for US PIRG. “It’s outrageous that Congress is now trying, through a sneak attack on an appropriations bill, to stop mining regulations that could protect the American public and taxpayers.”

The Sierra Club took the publication of the TRI figures as an opportunity to attack presidential candidate George W. Bush’s record on air pollution in Texas, which the TRI shows to have the highest levels in the US.

Toxic air pollutant emissions in the state rose from 108 million lbs (49 million kg) in 1997 to approximately 110 million lbs (50 million kg) in 1998 according to the TRI. Toxic pollution discharged into surface waters rose nearly 20%, to approximately 25 million lbs (11 million kg).

Overall, Texas’ toxics releases were over 300 million pounds, up from 261 million lbs in the 1997 TRI. This placed the state at No. 5 overall, down from No. 1 in the last TRI. The worst polluting state was Nevada at 1.3 billion lbs (0.59 billion kg).

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