Fewer toxic chemicals sully the environment

Advocates of political change often say of those they're trying to influence: "If they won't see the light, then make them feel the heat."

The light – and the heat – of public exposure has been a key reason why the amount of toxic chemicals released into the environment continues to decline. According to new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) figures, such pollution dropped 8 percent in 2000 (the most recent data).

This continues a steady decrease totaling 48 percent since Congress ordered some 23,500 companies to report on more than 667 chemicals in the wake of major deadly toxic releases in the mid-1980s, including the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak that killed some 3,800 people in Bhopal, India.

This "Emergency Planning & Community Right-To-Know" law allows anybody to find out quickly and easily who the polluters are in any city, town, or neighborhood. In a matter of moments, a person can type a zip code into one of several websites, and up pops the amounts and types of chemical releases and – more to the point – which companies or government agencies are responsible for them.

EPA administrator Christie Whitman calls this a "powerful tool" that, together with other federal statutes, has forced polluters to clean up their act.

Most recent figures filed as part of the "Toxics Release Inventory" (TRI) show that the amount of such chemicals released into the environment in 2000 totaled 7.1 billion pounds, a drop of 700 million pounds below the 1999 figure. Chemicals from metal mining made up about 47 percent of the total, manufacturing facilities accounted for 32 percent, and electric utilities were responsible for 16 percent.

Regional variations

The amounts and types of chemical releases vary regionally. Four mining states (Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and Alaska) account for the largest volume. Coal-fired power plants are the major toxic polluters in Illinois. In Washington State, pulp and paper mills and aluminum plants account for most chemical releases.

Some areas have seen dramatic decreases. In California's Silicon Valley, toxic releases have fallen by 96 percent since reporting began in 1988 – the result of tougher state and federal laws impacting the computer industry. Figures to be made public today by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (an agency set up under the North American Free Trade Agreement), show the same downward trend.

But the news is not all good. The decline in toxic releases into the environment is more than offset by increases in "managed toxic waste" – chemicals that end up in landfills, recycling centers, incinerators, and Superfund sites. And it doesn't include potentially harmful chemicals still found in thousands of everyday products. Critics say this is especially true of such chemicals as dioxin, mercury, and PCBs – "persistent bioaccumulative toxic" substances that persist in the environment and can be deadly in very small quantities.

"Chemicals go into use with little testing, and regulators have almost no ability to get them off the market," says Jeremiah Baumann, environmental health advocate for the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a Washington-based advocacy group.

This latest data on toxic chemicals may be good news for President George Bush, but it also spotlights what critics say are administration policies that actually could increase toxic pollution. The administration wants to allow large-surface mine operators to dump more fill into waterways. Such waste not only clogs streams but usually exposes naturally occurring toxic substances to the air and water.

Critics say the president's recently- announced "Clear Skies" initiative to reduce air pollution will result in more mercury emissions, not less. Meanwhile, the president wants to use general tax dollars to pay for Superfund toxic waste cleanup rather than continue the "polluter pays" approach that had been in force as a disincentive to letting toxic chemicals into the environment.

Delayed warnings

While the sunshine of public revelation has helped to reduce toxic chemical releases by some industries and in some areas, it's also highlighted weaknesses in the EPA's reporting system.

"While TRI has proven to be a powerful and popular environmental tool, it still takes far too long for the data to be made public," says Carol Andress, an analyst with the advocacy group Environmental Defense. "That means residents don't find out about pollution in their community until years after the fact."

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