Reported Toxic Chemical Releases Surge by 20% as Reduction Strategy Takes Shape

In 2010, 18 million pounds of toxic compounds were released by 271 facilities across Oregon

January 11, 2012 -- New data detailing a surge in toxic chemical releases in Oregon and nationwide went public last week, even as state regulators try to streamline efforts to manage industrial emissions that may be harmful to human health.

Eighteen million pounds of toxic compounds were released by 271 facilities across Oregon in 2010, data from the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) reveals. That's a 20% increase from reported releases in 2009. Toxic releases across the U.S. rose by 16% throughout the same period.

Though the increase in emissions is notable, data in the TRI can be better understood as one tool in analyzing public health risks from industrial chemicals, rather than an indicator that any part of the state has or has not been exposed to toxic chemicals.

“The main thing it's used for is to just get information out there,” says Graham Kirn, who works on the TRI in the EPA's Seattle office. “Having the data is great, but we want it to be used as well. There will be work done on trying to promote interest and work on TRI data.”

Methanol, lead and aluminum were the state's three most widely released chemicals. The biggest reporter in the TRI was Chemical Waste Management of the Northwest. The Waste Management subsidiary's hazardous waste treatment facility in Arlington reported more than 8.2 million pounds of releases in 2010. That's nearly double the second highest, which came from McMinnville-based Cascade Steel Rolling, a Schnitzer Steel subsidiary that produces steel products from scrap metal. Four of the top ten releasing facilities in Oregon are involved in paper products.

The EPA compiles TRI data from reports from large industrial operations. Interested parties — such as state environmental regulators, local health agencies, activists, litigators or everyday citizens curious about the toxins in their backyards — can consult the data to determine whether they want to more closely examine a facility. A tool called TRI Explorer ( ) lets the public look up chemical releases by zip code.

The data doesn't, however, say whether a given community has been exposed to a particular chemical. Determining exposures is complicated and involves analyzing the route that a chemical might have taken from a source to an exposed individual and whether it was inhaled, ingested or absorbed through skin.

The inventory only tracks data reported by facilities required by law to report their handling of toxic chemicals. That means additional toxic substances that either weren't reported or were produced from other sources besides industrial facilities regulated by the EPA aren't accounted for in the inventory. Moreover, comparisons to past years don't account for any changes in reporting requirements that might skew the numbers.

There aren't clear indications of why toxic chemical releases are on the upswing, but some have hypothesized that economic recovery may explain the increases. Kirn with the TRI says numerous explanations could be given for the increases, and changes in toxic chemical releases are facility specific. New facilities can open up, others can increase production; some might change their manufacturing processes and start using different chemical compounds. Others still might just start doing a better job of tracking their data. A next step for Kirn and his colleagues will be to analyze why facilities that stopped or started reporting have done so, and to help the public learn how to use the new data.

“Getting the data out there and having it available is really the most important thing,” Kirn says. “The whole purpose is to allow government to government interaction, citizen to government interaction, and interest group interaction. It's about allowing engagement and getting to the question of what's in my backyard.”  

A Toxic Reduction Strategy

Still, the data provides further assistance to regulators trying to hone a strategy to cut down on toxics in Oregon. The updated inventory was publicized just a couple weeks after the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission was presented with a draft toxics reduction strategy by staff with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Under this toxics reduction strategy, the DEQ developed a list of “priority” chemicals to reduce. Now the department is meeting with outside stakeholders — consisting of state, federal and tribal government officials, environmental advocates, industry representatives (including some from facilities in the TRI's list of top ten releases) and public health advocates — to hone a strategy to reduce toxic chemicals in Oregon. Along the way, the department hopes to meet with the public as early as the end of January and start implementing short term goals, says Kevin Masterson, the DEQ's point person on the strategy.

Masterson says the strategy aims to integrate and more systematically address the current “piecemeal” approach where a host of individual programs and regulations separately address the impacts and prevalence of various toxics.

“Our main question that we try to ask ourselves is what can we do to complement the existing regulatory programs and frameworks that we have in place right now to get us more bang for our buck,” Masterson says.

The TRI is just one tool – albeit an informative one – to inform this process.

“We're just starting to take a look at it ourselves because it was just released to everyone,” Masterson says. “It is definitely a dataset that we have committed to look at.”

Masterson says he took note of a Chemical Waste Management's jump to the top of reporting facilities in Oregon, but that there are many reasons why Oregon's numbers might have increased. The toxics reduction strategy doesn't just focus on reporting facilities or other such “point sources” of pollution. In Oregon, Masterson says, toxic exposures are more likely to come from nonpoint sources, like cars and storm water runoff from individual homes.

“Our toxics reduction strategy is focused on a lot of different sources and pathways,” Masterson says. TRI data is comprehensive, but facilities don't start reporting the chemicals they use until they reach a set threshold, and even then, not all of the chemicals reported end up in the environment. Plus a lot of eyes are on reporting facilities.

“[TRI] has a tendency to represent the universe of facilities that are already fairly heavily regulated,” Masterson says.

The list of priority chemicals being developed by the DEQ for its toxic reduction strategy considers the chemicals that large industrial facilities use, but, says Masterson, there are other chemicals that may pose risks to the public that aren't currently regulated as heavily. Such so-called “emergent” chemicals include substances most likely found in consumer products, including triclosan, phthalates and bisphenol A (or BPA).

But just because the list hasn't been heavily regulated, it has been extensively vetted based on research that's already been done by DEQ and the EPA. Masterson says the focus now is on implementing a reduction strategy.

“We're not advocating a lot of new regulatory programs, what we're pushing for working on ways to collaborate to reduce toxics at the source,” Masterson says.
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