EPA Analysis of Toxic Releases Highlights Need for Stronger Federal Oversight on Industries

Legal Loopholes Still Allow Mining and Oil & Gas Industries to Hide Hazardous Chemical Releases

Yesterday (Jan 5) the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its complete analysis of the most recent Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data. The data gives citizens information about toxic releases into air, water and land by mining companies and industrial facilities in and around their communities

Photo by Flickr user Tumbleweed Kennecott Copper Mine in Utah has the fourth largest toxic release in the US, according to the EPA's analysis of
the 2010 Toxics Release Inventory.

The EPA analysis – of data released in October 2011 – indicates, as usual, that the metal mining industry is the nation’s largest toxic polluter, responsible for 41 percent of all reported toxics in 2010, or 1.6 billion pounds. This has been the case ever since the metal mining industry was required to report its toxic releases in 1997. The industry accounts for the vast majority of toxic heavy metals and metalloids released such as:

arsenic (96% / 280 million pounds)

mercury (92% of mercury / 4.4 million pounds)

lead (86% / 538 million pounds)

But perhaps the most significant toxics releases by our mines and oil and gas companies are those not included in the TRI.

As the EPA analysis explains, the metal mining industry successfully sued to exclude from the inventory most toxics in waste rock. Consequently, beginning with the 2002 reporting year, more than one third of the metal mining industry's toxics — which are still released into the environment every year — go unreported.

If included in the 2010 reporting year, the metal mining industry would have reported a whopping 2.1 billion pounds of toxic waste and accounted for almost half of all toxics reported in the United States.

This is especially significant because – thanks to loopholes in the Clean Water Act and a recent Supreme Court decision – mining companies can dump toxics directly into rivers, lakes and streams.

Additionally, and unfortunately, one of the most serious threats to our nation's drinking water supply —toxic releases from oil and gas companies — is left unknown.

Unlike almost all other industries, oil and gas producers, who wield heavy influence in our nation’s corridors of power, do not have to report toxic releases for most of their operations. They enjoy exemptions from requirements under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (the legislation authorizing TRI), or under any other federal statute – including the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The damage from this omission is increasing thanks to the shale gas boom enabled by horizontal hydraulic fracturing or fracking. Drilling for oil and gas now occurs in 34 states across the country, threatening the drinking water sources of tens of millions of Americans. Yet communities are in the dark because drillers don't have to report the toxics they release from the thousands of wells and compressors.

We need to close the loopholes that allow oil and gas industries as well as mining companies to pollute our land, air and water with impunity.

In the case of drilling for oil and gas, several individual states have begun to require disclosure of chemicals used in the process. But this is not enough. What we need, as the Toxics Release Inventory shows so well, is an easily accessible national database that allows comparison of toxic release across regions, industries and chemicals.

Federal reporting requirements allow communities to better judge the risks posed by toxics in their communities. And as a consequence, and as happened with mercury air pollution from gold mining, it allows those communities to exert pressure on both industries and government to require reductions in toxics releases.

Effective federal environmental oversight of resource extraction by all industries, oil and gas included, is necessary to protect communities and the environment. And that’s what we should be demanding from our federal government.

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