Public pollution data make for a less-filthy West


At the end of last year, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a long-stalled Clean Air Act standard to limit air pollution from cement kilns, which spew massive quantities of toxic mercury into the air -- though the agency is drawing the ire of environmental groups for delaying implementation until 2015. One reason the public and regulators were able to identify cement producers as emissions heavy-hitters, second only to coal-fired power plants in their mercury emissions, is the EPA’s annual Toxics Release Inventory.

The TRI, as it is referred to, requires certain industries to report release or disposal of particular toxic chemicals (the EPA requires reporting of over 650). This store of publicly available toxic emissions data, which was established by a 1985 law that barely squeaked through Congress, is a huge help to anyone wanting to keep a watch on industrial pollution. For example, in 2011 National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity used the inventory for its Poisoned Places investigation into neglected communities with noxious air (with implications for the West here).

The reporting can also help regulators sniff out patterns in toxic releases they might not been aware of. In 2005, Patty Jacobs, an enterprising permit writer for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, dug into the toxics inventory and uncovered some startling data. She found the Ash Grove cement plant in eastern Oregon was not only spewing more mercury than any other U.S. cement plant, it was also emitting well over twice as much of the neurotoxin as the state’s lone coal-fired power plant. HCN covered that story, and the EPA kiln emissions loophole in a 2011 piece, "Mountains of mercury."

The Patty Jacobs story is an illustration of the power of data transparency to keep polluters in check. At the behest of the state of Oregon, the Ash Grove cement plant cleaned up its act, cutting its emissions of mercury compounds from 1,962 pounds in 2009 to 86 in 2011. While the Toxics Release Inventory data comes larded with caveats, since not all toxics are reported and many small facilities are exempted, it gives the public a good start for keeping an eye on industrial activities, and the air and water borne emissions of the different chemical compounds it tracks.

There are 17 cement kilns in the West (not every state has one) and six are in California. The plant in Tehachapi is one of the worst mercury polluters in the U.S. and released 1,350 pounds of it in 2011, according to the EPA's 2011 Toxic Release Inventory data.

The report also gives a hint of pollution trends. In this year’s inventory, the EPA reports a nationwide 8 percent decrease in toxic air emissions since 2010. The agency credits new air pollution control technologies at coal-fired power plants, and a falling demand for their power for the reported decline. After the kiln rule takes effect, mercury releases could fall even further. Yet, other things have stayed the same.

In a case of business as usual, or worse-than-usual, toxic emissions increased overall from 2010 to 2011, driven largely by land emissions, which rose by 19 percent. According to the EPA, that’s primarily due to a largely Western endeavor, metal mining. They list a number of possible reasons for the uptick, including increased production at mines (gold hoarding, anyone?), and changes in the composition of the large amounts of waste rock that mines produce.

In 1996, HCN reported on “The filthy West”, and in those days the data that now allow us to keep track of hard rock mining and coal-burning power plant releases were conveniently absent from the Toxics Release Inventory. But during the mid-90s the Clinton administration closed the truck-sized loophole that exempted those industries from reporting, along with electric utilities, commercial hazardous-waste treatment centers, petroleum storage terminals and chemical wholesalers.

It’s easy to take for granted that we can see some of what’s going on at a neighboring mine or upwind coal plant. But today, natural gas plants, and oil and gas extraction and are the ones omitted from the inventory, and the public eye. Hopefully, there will also be a day when it’s hard to believe that they escaped accountability.

Sarah Jane Keller is an intern at High Country News.

Photo: Children Play in Yard of Ruston Home, While Tacoma Smelter Stack Showers Area with Arsenic and Lead Residue by Gene Daniels, 1972. Courtesy of National Archives via Flickr.

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