Factories, power plants, and mines used to just dump their waste into waterways or on the ground, or they sent it up smokestacks. Out of sight, out of mind was the operating principle.
But that began to change with passage of landmark environmental legislation a generation ago - mainly the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Polluters started cleaning up, and more recently they've been required to report the kinds and amounts of toxic substances they emit.
Public and political scrutiny helped accelerate the cleanup of some 650 potentially dangerous substances at nearly 25,000 facilities around the country. Over the years, those yearly reports under the "Emergency Planning & Community Right-To-Know" law showed improvement.
But the latest national report card by the Environmental Protection Agency (with data from 2002) shows an increase in toxic pollutants, the second time that's occurred since reporting began 17 years ago.
In all, nearly 5 billion pounds of toxins were released into the environment in 2002, the EPA reports. That's undoubtedly less than before such reporting was required, but it is 5 percent more than the previous year, and it's likely that other toxic releases are missed in the total count.
For example, perchlorate, a toxic chemical used in military rocket fuel, has been found in the groundwater of at least 20 states. As a result, reported the Environmental Working Group last week, pregnant women and young children who drink milk from cows in California (home to many military bases) may be exposed to unsafe levels of the substance. State and federal regulators are considering new standards for perchlorate.
EPA and industry officials say the overall spike in toxics is mainly due to a one-time closing of a copper smelter in Arizona. (When the facility was shut down, everything on the site was considered waste.)
But former EPA officials and environmental watchdogs dispute that assertion, and they warn that government regulators are seriously underreporting the actual amounts of such dangerous pollutants as mercury, arsenic, and lead.
Using data gathered by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Environmental Integrity Project (founded by Eric Schaeffer, former EPA official) and the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention warn that levels of such carcinogenic substances as benzene and butadiene may be four to five times higher than reported by the EPA.
"Systematic underreporting happens today because most air pollution is now estimated, not monitored," says Kelly Haragan, a lawyer with the Environmental Integrity Project in Washington. "To make matters worse, the guesswork is being done by the polluters who have the incentives to keep numbers low ."
Industry officials strongly reject the charge that toxic pollutants are being underreported, and they assert that years of improvements in their manufacturing processes have increased environmental quality around the country.
"Refineries and petrochemical plants are among the most highly regulated facilities in the US," says Bob Slaughter, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. "The emissions limitations present in our air permits are fully protective of human health and the environment."
There undoubtedly will be political fallout. While the environment is not a top political concern for most people, it could be a deciding factor for undecided voters. The Bush administration wants to make the reporting of such toxics easier, and its proposed policy on mercury admissions has become very controversial.
"Carbon trading" programs, which allow relatively clean plants to sell pollution credits to dirtier facilities, have helped reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. The Bush administration favors a similar program for mercury, a substance far more toxic.
The administration also wants to lengthen the time frame for reducing overall mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants. (The Clinton administration proposed a 90 percent reduction by 2008; the Bush administration favors a 70 percent cut by 2018.) Environmentalists say a mercury-trading program would leave dangerous "hot spots" in certain geographic areas near power plants. Scientists with the industry-sponsored Electric Power Research Institute deny this.
But in a report to the EPA, 36 leading scientists affiliated with the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation in Hanover, N.H., recently warned that "mercury pollution in the environment is widespread and severe." As a result of elevated mercury in the environment, they noted, 45 states have issued advisories regarding fish consumption in areas encompassing 12 million lake acres and 473,000 river miles.
Tuesday is the deadline for public comment on the EPA's proposal on the trading of mercury emissions from power plants.