Which industries pump the most toxic chemicals into our air and water?
The metals mining industry gets that distinction, followed by electric utilities, the chemical industry, primary metals and the paper industry.
Metals mining is responsible for almost half – 46% – of all the toxic chemicals released into the air, water and land for 2011 – close to 1.9 billion pounds.
And it’s been the top source of chemical pollution since 1997, the first year companies were required to disclose that under EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory.
Metals mining is responsible for 97% of arsenic releases and 93% of lead and mercury releases, says Earthworks, a non-profit that has long called for changes to archaic rules for that industry.
"Billions of pounds of pollution requires billions of dollars to clean up," says Alan Septoff, director of strategic communications for Earthworks. "If the EPA doesn’t act soon to require cleanup bonds, taxpayers could be paying the cleanup bill instead of the polluting mining companies. Meanwhile, our nation’s rivers, streams, air and land remain at risk."
A 2009 court order requires EPA to issue financial assurance requirements for metals mining – these are bonds that would pay for mine clean-ups in the event that a mining company was unable or unwilling to pay for a reclamation or closure. But the agency has postponed taking action until at least 2014.
Earthworks holds up Idaho’s Lucky Friday mine as an example of what can go wrong. In 2011, there were 17 million pounds of toxic releases there and extensive long-term water treatment will be necessary when it closes. But that state doesn’t issue bonds for underground mines, so state taxpayers could be on the hook for $100 million in clean-up costs if the owner doesn’t pay the bill.
Over 500 mines are in EPA’s clean-up program, with liabilities to taxpayers estimated at $50 billion.
Nationally, toxic chemical releases into the air dropped 8% and in water 3% in 2011, but they were more than offset by a 19% rise in releases to land.
“Since 1998, we have recorded a steady decline in the amount of TRI chemicals released into the air, and since 2009 alone, we have seen more than a 100 million pound decrease in TRI air pollutants entering our communities. This remarkable success is due in part to the TRI program and concerted efforts by industry, regulators and public interest groups to clean up the air we all depend upon,” says EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
In total, the environment received a gift of 4.09 billion pounds of toxic chemicals in 2011, and releases of more than 650 toxic chemicals from thousands of US locations are reported each year.
EPA’s "How’s My Waterway app" uses GPS technology or your zipcode or city name to give you information about the quality of your local water bodies.
Here is this year’s analysis: