Toxic waste production increased by 8 billion pounds in 2000

New dioxin data show high amounts of hazardous pollution

provided by U.S. PIRG


oxic waste generated by US industry jumped more than 25% in 2000, according to data released last month by the US EPA. The data, part of the federal Toxics Release Inventory, established by Congress in 1986 as the nation's community right-to-know program, show about 38 billion pounds of toxic waste managed in 2000, with another 7.1 billion pounds released directly to the air, land, and water. Louisiana led the nation in toxic waste generated, with more than 9 billion pounds generated, or approximately one quarter of the nation's toxic waste. Nevada led the nation in direct releases, with 14% of the nation's pollution, mostly from the mining industry.

    Analysis by U.S. PIRG, a public interest advocacy organization, showed that current Bush administration proposals to weaken environmental protections would hinder progress toward reducing this toxic pollution and in some cases would exacerbate the pollution. The group argued that billions of pounds of toxic chemicals released show the problems with current law that make it nearly impossible to remove harmful chemicals from the market.

    “The billions of pounds of toxic pollution and toxic waste documented today should show our decision-makers why we need a law that phases out the use of the most toxic chemicals,” said Jeremiah Baumann, environmental health advocate for U.S. PIRG. “But instead, we have the Bush administration letting the very companies that dump these chemicals into our environment rewrite our environmental and public health protections.”

    In addition, thousands of facilities were required for the first time in 2000 to report their releases of persistent toxic chemicals like dioxin and mercury – chemicals that persist in ecosystems and accumulate in the human body, dramatically increasing the chances of exposure and detrimental health effects. Companies reported releasing 12 million pounds of these persistent chemicals in 2000 and generated nearly 72 million pounds of waste containing these chemicals.

    “For chemicals like dioxin and mercury, this toxic pollution is almost guaranteed exposure,” said Baumann. “These millions of pounds of toxic pollution also demonstrate a major failing in current law – chemicals go into use with little testing and regulators have almost no ability to get them off the market.” The Toxic Substances Control Act doesn't mandate pre-market testing for toxic chemicals and makes it very difficult for EPA to phase out or ban a chemical.

    A recently-signed international treaty would create a science-based process for establishing protections from persistent toxic chemicals. However, the Bush administration is proposing to implement the treaty in a way that would address only a handful of the chemicals without establishing a means of addressing the remaining persistent toxics.

New reports – new bad news


    The 2000 data represent the first year that industries have been required to report pollution and wastes containing dioxin. Dioxin is a notorious chemical created in industrial processes that burn or use chlorine or chlorinate materials, and is a highly potent cancer agent also linked to damage to the reproductive, immune, and nervous systems. The chemical is not only toxic, but persists in the environment and accumulates in the body to such a degree that the World Health Organization estimates a “safe” daily intake of the most toxic form of dioxin to be 1-4 trillionths of a gram per kilogram of body weight. Polluters reported 495 thousand grams of dioxin released to the environment or generated in toxic waste, with about 100 thousand grams released directly to air, land, and water. The Bush administration has stalled on issuing a long-awaited final assessment of dioxin's health threats, the release of which would trigger the first steps toward developing new protections against dioxin exposure.

    Mercury pollution is also particularly striking in the new pollution data: industries released 4.3 million pounds of mercury and mercury compounds to the environment and generated 4.9 million pounds of mercury compounds in toxic waste. By comparison, a teaspoon of mercury deposited every year can contaminate a 20-acre lake to the point that fish are unsafe to eat. A 2001 report by U.S. PIRG and the Environmental Working Group found that fish contamination is already so high that eating fish exposes 1-in-4 pregnant women to levels of mercury that could threaten a developing fetus. The Bush administration's “Clear Skies Initiative” would allow three times more mercury pollution than full enforcement of the current Clean Air Act.

Beating around the Bush


    The new toxic pollution data amplify concerns about toxic waste sites in communities, because many of the chemicals released to the environment in such large quantities are already problems at toxic waste sites. The Bush administration has taken a position against reinstating the “polluter pays” tax, which taxes polluters to fund toxic waste cleanups. Instead, the administration is asking taxpayers to pay for cleanups, and allowing the number of toxic waste sites cleaned up every year to slow dramatically.

    Metal mining and utilities were identified as the nation's biggest polluters, with 3.4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals released by mines, nearly half of total chemical releases, and 1.2 billion pounds released by the utilities and by mines. The Bush administration has proposed weakening Clean Air Act requirements that aging utilities add modern pollution controls when they update their plants, which could result in pollution increases at electric utilities. The administration has also proposed relaxing clean water rules to legalize the dumping of mining waste in rivers and streams.

    “We see billions of pounds of toxic pollution dumped every year, so it's particularly disappointing that the Bush administration would allow the worst polluters to pollute more,” said Baumann.

What we don't see...

    The Toxics Release Inventory reflects only a fraction of the toxic hazards in the environment. The program does not include releases from significant pollution sources like oil wells, airports, and waste incinerators, nor does it include significant sources of exposure to chemicals, such as chemicals placed in products. In addition, the TRI represents only a fraction of the chemicals on the market. While there are approximately 80,000 chemicals on the market, according to EPA and American Chemistry Council studies, gaps in toxics laws mean that at least some of the data needed to perform a basic screen for health and environmental effects were not publicly available for more than 90 percent of the chemicals.

    U.S. PIRG called on policymakers to reject proposed Bush administration rollbacks of environmental laws in favor of better protections, including expanding the right-to-know program to include full information on toxic chemical hazards and requiring manufacturers to stop using chemicals that pose a clear hazard.