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Toxic Chemical Waste 2013

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This post begins a series to update information on toxic chemical releases in Missouri and nationwide. The most recent data is through 2013.

Many industrial processes require the use of toxic substances. These substances must be properly handled to prevent harm to people, land, and water. During the 1970s and early 1980s concerns grew about how toxic substances were being handled. For instance, tons of toxic waste were discovered dumped in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls. Oil containing dioxin was sprayed on the streets of Times Beach, Missouri, turning it into a ghost town; people can’t live there to this day. In 1984, a malfunction at a chemical plant in Bhopal, India released a cloud of poisonous gas that killed more than 3,000 people overnight, and 15,000 – 20,000 eventually (5-7 times as many as were killed in the 9/11 attacks). Shortly thereafter, a serious release of toxic gas occurred in Institute, West Virginia.

Cement Creek, Colorado, location of a toxic release in August 2015. Photo by John May.

Cement Creek, Colorado, location of a toxic release in August 2015. The natural color of the rocks is grey. Photo by John May.

These concerns are hardly a thing of the past, however; just this summer, an accident at a mine in Colorado released millions of gallons of water contaminated with toxic heavy metals into Cement Creek (photo at right). Cement Creek flows into the Animas River, the only water source for several cities in Colorado and New Mexico.

Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act in 1986, and the Pollution Prevention Act in 1990. These laws require facilities to report releases, transfers, and waste management activities of toxic materials.

The Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program of the EPA gathers this information and makes it available to the public on their website. In addition, they publish an annual report covering the whole country, plus fact sheets for each of the 50 states. The TRI data does not cover all toxic materials and all facilities, but it does cover an important set of them.

After being used, toxic substances can be managed or released into the environment. In decreasing order of preference, managing them can mean improving industrial processes to use less toxic material to start with, recycling them, burning them to generate electricity, or treating them to make them less toxic. Where toxic materials are not managed, they can be injected into wells, stored, landfilled, emitted into the air, discharged into surface water, or spread over the land. They can be handled either on-site or off-site. Determining whether any of these activities represent a potential hazard to people, land, or water is complex. One cannot simply assume, for instance, that on-site means safe. On the other hand, one cannot assume that emission or discharge of the substance means that there is toxic exposure. The statistics in the TRI are only a starting point, and many factors must be taken into consideration when analyzing TRI data.

Number of Toxic Release Inventory Sites in Missouri, by County. Data source: Environmental Protection Agency 2015b.

Number of Toxic Release Inventory Sites in Missouri, by County. Data source: Environmental Protection Agency 2015b.

In 2013, 521 facilities in Missouri were covered by the Toxic Release Inventory, and 21,707 nationwide. On the map at right, each green circle represents a county in Missouri, with the number of TRI sites inside the circle. On the map at the TRI website, if you click on a green circle, the name of the county will pop up with some additional information. Unfortunately, the TRI website does not seem to have this map available for download in a form that labels the counties. The three counties with the most sites are Jackson County (45), Green County (27), and Franklin County (24). Having the most TRI sites does not necessarily mean the most toxic releases. One reason is that by far the most toxic waste is managed.

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Missouri data in the blue columns should be read on the left axis. U.S. data in the red line should be read on the right axis. Data source: Environmental Protection Agency 2015b.

Missouri data in the blue columns should be read on the left axis. U.S. data in the red line should be read on the right axis. Data source: Environmental Protection Agency 2015b.

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The chart at right shows the data for Missouri and for the United States. About 84% of Missouri toxics are managed, only 16% are released. For the United States as a whole, a slightly higher percentage is managed, but really, the percentages are similar. Even though only 16% of toxic materials are released in Missouri, that still amounts to 72 million lb. In the following posts I’ll look into the releases in more detail.

Sources:

Environmental Protection Agency. 2015a. Toxic Release Inventory: TRI National Analysis 2013.

Environmental Protection Agency. 2015b. 2013 TRI Factsheet: State – Missouri. This is a webpage with data released in March, 2015. http://iaspub.epa.gov/triexplorer/tri_factsheet.factsheet_forstate?pZip=&pCity=&pCounty=&pState=MO&pYear=2013&pDataSet=TRIQ2&pParent=NAT&pPrint=1.

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