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Home>EPA Analysis Shines New Light on Toxic Pollution

EPA Analysis Shines New Light on Toxic Pollution

News Research

By: Brian Turnbaugh. OMB Watch. December 20, 2010

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released an expanded and enhanced "National Analysis" of the 2009 Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data. The National Analysis examines trends in toxic pollution and waste generation from thousands of facilities nationwide. This year, EPA has added several new features and new analyses that help the public track pollution and identify the biggest polluting companies. The improved National Analysis is another positive step in a series of actions EPA has taken to strengthen the TRI program.

The expanded National Analysis of TRI data follows EPA's recent action adding 16 carcinogens to the list of chemicals that are covered by TRI. This expansion was preceded by the earliest release of TRI data in the history of the program and the development of several online tools that help communities search the TRI database and identify releases of toxic chemicals in their regions. Each of these actions has made the TRI program – a bedrock environmental right-to-know program – a stronger, more versatile and useful tool for reducing toxic pollution in communities.

Nationwide, the analysis finds that TRI facilities generated more than 20 billion pounds of toxic chemical wastes in 2009, which is 12 percent less than 2008. Of this waste, 3.37 billion pounds were disposed of or released into air, land, or water, a reduction of 12 percent from 2008.

In 2009, 20,797 facilities reported to EPA under TRI. This is the eighth consecutive year the number of facilities has decreased, representing a 19 percent drop in the number of facilities reporting to TRI since 2001. EPA does not know exactly why this is happening. The concern is that a significant proportion of this decline is the result of facilities that should be reporting but are not doing so. Other factors are certainly contributing to this reduction in the number of reporting facilities, such as plant closings and changes in processes that drive a facility below the thresholds for reporting. EPA's enforcement office has undertaken a limited review of facilities to identify potential violations, but additional investigations should be undertaken to clarify what is driving this trend.

One new feature in the National Analysis is an aggregation of the top ten polluting TRI parent companies. Reporting facilities are required to identify who owns them, allowing EPA and the public to aggregate a parent company's total toxic releases from all of its facilities. The number of TRI facilities operated by the top ten parent companies ranges from Incobrasa Industries' single soybean processing facility to the 93 facilities under the Koch Industries umbrella. Dow Chemical Company tops the list with almost 700 million pounds of toxic waste from its 48 TRI facilities in 2009.

EPA also added another helpful feature to the parent company top ten list: a report on the pollution prevention activities of the companies. From 2005 to 2009, three of the top ten companies reported that they did not undertake a single action to reduce the quantity of toxic waste they generate, whereas one-half of sixth-place Syngenta AG's facilities undertook pollution prevention activities during those five years. Although the data analysis does not indicate what types of activities were undertaken or what the impact was, the data help the public identify who is bothering to take steps to clean up their operations.

EPA's National Analysis this year includes several new geographic-specific analyses of the data. EPA has broken down the data to show toxic releases in specific tribal lands across the country. For example, users can quickly see that in 2009 the Navajo Nation Reservation of Arizona and New Mexico saw more than 6.5 million pounds of toxic releases – the largest amount among tribal areas – mostly from electric utilities. The Puyallup Reservation in Washington contained the largest number of facilities among the listed tribal lands, with 16 reporting facilities.

EPA also added an analysis of pollution in major urban areas. For example, the report on the Greater Boston Area, a metropolitan statistical area that covers parts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, shows that the region's 260 TRI facilities pumped 1.6 million pounds of toxics into the air, mostly from electric utilities. Reports on a dozen other urban areas are available on EPA's website.

Toxic releases into ten major watersheds, known as large aquatic ecosystems, are featured in another new EPA analysis. The analysis shows that the 64,000-square-mile watershed of the Chesapeake Bay saw 913 facilities dispose of or release almost 96 million pounds of toxics, much of which contributes to the declining health of the Bay. It is important to remember that TRI does not include major sources of Chesapeake Bay pollution such as wastewater treatment plants, farms, and urban runoff.

The new features added to EPA's analysis of the TRI data are another welcome step toward greater transparency, strengthening the public's right to know about the toxics that are in their communities. We would like to see EPA continue to provide new and relevant analyses of TRI data, and to push the information out to the communities most impacted by toxic pollution. Only with this information can citizens come together to push facilities to clean up their operations.

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