WASHINGTON — The amount of toxic pollutants in America’s air, water and land jumped 5 percent in 2002 – the highest increase since the federal government started keeping track of toxins in 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday.
America’s industries spewed 4.79 billion pounds of poisonous substances into the environment in 2002. It was only the second time that this key environmental indicator has increased since the EPA started the Toxics Release Inventory, or TRI, which allows people to identify about 650 chemicals that are emitted in their neighborhoods.
Mercury and lead – which can harm the developing minds and nervous systems of children – increased by 10 percent and 3 percent, respectively, while another big-name toxin, dioxin, dropped 5 percent.
The increase prompted a former top Republican environmental official to describe the latest figures as a disturbing change in what had been an almost continuous downward trend.
“Mercury and lead are worrisome toxics,” said William Reilly, the EPA administrator for the first President Bush. “The whole point of TRI is to alert us to hot spots and problems with particular pernicious toxics. It’s not good news.”
Electric power plants – mostly coal-fired ones – increased their toxic emissions by 3.5 percent and now are responsible for 23 percent of the nation’s toxins, the EPA said. Its count of pollutants from military bases, nuclear waste disposal sites and other federal facilities showed toxic emissions from those sources rose by 9 percent.
Copper, gold mines blamed
Kim Nelson, the EPA’s chief information officer, said problems at copper and gold mines and other unusual events caused the increase. The only other time the EPA’s tally of toxic emissions increased was in 1996-1997 when emissions rose by 2.2 percent.
The closure of an Arizona copper smelting plant, which prompted the EPA to consider all the material on site as waste, changed what would have been a nationwide pollution decrease into an increase, Nelson said. Mercury levels rose because of a problem at one gold mine, she said.
Still, Nelson said unusual plant and mine pollution problems alter the statistics each year.
Environmental activists and university professors said the EPA’s data reflect a reduced emphasis on curbing pollution by the Bush administration. Industry lobbyists and conservative analysts dismissed the data as meaningless.
“We’ve fallen behind because we haven’t made it our priority in the last few years. I think it’s partly the Bush administration’s fault,” said John Byrne, the director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Delaware.
But Scott Segal, a Washington lobbyist who represents coal-fired utilities and oil refineries, said toxic inventory “suffers from the garbage-in, garbage-out phenomenon” because it reports on hundreds of chemicals but doesn’t rate the risk to people from those toxins.
Angela Logomasini, the director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative public policy organization, said the data doesn’t take into account that many of the chemicals are recycled. She said, “It’s very hard to capture what really is happening.”
But in its Draft Report on the Environment, the EPA last year touted the TRI as a good indicator of environmental progress.
Separate study says problem worse
A separate study released by an environmental group Tuesday, however, questioned the inventory’s accuracy. The Environmental Integrity Project, run by a former top EPA enforcement official, said the data is based solely on industry self-reporting of emissions that aren’t double-checked by testing what comes out of smokestacks or effluent pipes.
According to the study, the Texas environmental agency found that air quality was much worse than EPA’s data said it was. So the state measured air pollutants near oil refineries and chemical plants and found the pollution was several times higher, said Kelly Haragan, the EIP’s attorney.
If the same were true nationally, the EIP estimates that the nation’s toxic air emissions in 2001 from just 10 chemicals were probably closer to 606 million pounds than the 272 million pounds reported by the industry, Haragan said.
The EPA uses voluntary reporting from industry because that’s what the law requires, the EPA’s Nelson said.