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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Disappearing Lead

Air Date: Week of

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The EPA just released its annual report on industrial toxic releases for 2001. Overall the news is good. But environmental groups say future toxic reporting may not be rigorous enough. Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports.


CURWOOD: Each year, industries have to report how much and how many poisonous chemicals they release into the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency collects the data in what’s called the Toxics Release Inventory Report. And this year there is some encouraging news. But as Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu explains, there’s also some question about the integrity of future reports.

CHU: Overall, toxic releases declined by 15 percent from the year 2000 to 2001, the most recent reporting year. The EPA requires power generators, manufacturers, and petrochemical plants, among others, to report pollution data on 650 toxins. In this latest report, one of those pollutants was subject to a change in reporting. In past years, companies were only required to report lead releases over 10,000 pounds. However, beginning in 2001, releases as small as 100 pounds now have to be reported. As a result, lead releases from coal fired power plants, steel smelting, and chemical manufacturing rose by 17 percent from the previous year. Jeremiah Baumann is a researcher with the US Public Interest Group. He says because of the new regulation, there’s been a shuffle in lead hotspots.

BAUMANN: For example, New Jersey, which in the last report was ranked number 26 in the country for the amount of lead released, now becomes ranked fifth, because of the chemical manufacturers who weren’t previously reporting.

CHU: In this latest report, the mining industry was responsible for nearly half of the pollution. But that’s quite likely to change in the future. That’s because that industry recently won a court battle that exempts a major mining process from future toxic inventory reporting. As part of any mining operation, material is dug up and pushed aside to get to the ore underneath. Carol Raulston is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association. She admits this rock and soil can contain pollutants such as lead, mercury, and arsenic.

RAULSTON: If your house was next door to it, and you dug in your backyard, you’d find the same things. And you’d generally find it in about the same concentrations. It’s just that we have to move a lot of rock and soil so our reports tend to be very high and make up a significant portion of what is reported under TRI.

CHU: Tom Natan is research director for the National Environmental Trust. He says that just because this material isn’t processed or manufactured, doesn’t mean that it can’t pollute. He estimates that under the new reporting exemption, the mining industry’s pollution inventory will plummet by as much as 60 percent.

NATAN: And, so, in future years we may see huge decrease, paper decrease, from the mining industry. It doesn’t mean they’re not generating as much waste in waste rock, doesn’t mean that those chemicals can’t leach off the facility and potentially harm people or environment, it just means we won’t know about it.

CHU: For anyone wanting to identify who releases what toxins in their community, the EPA has made the information available on their website, at epa.gov/tri. The database is searchable by zipcode.

For Living on Earth, I’m Jennifer Chu.

[MUSIC: Snares & Kites “Anticipation Proclamation” Tricks of Trapping Inbetweens Records (1999)]

CURWOOD: Just ahead, the jaguar may be making a comeback in the American Southwest. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Badly Drawn Boy “Delta (Little Boy Blues)” About a Boy (Soundtrack) Artist Direct BMG (2002)]



Toxic Release Inventory


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