What's in the air? Over 6 billion pounds of toxins

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR Staff

   Tennessee still ranks among the top 10 states in the nation for total on- and off-site releases of toxic chemicals, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
   Last week, EPA released its "2001 Toxics Release Inventory Public Data Release Report" (TRI) of industrial facilities releasing toxic chemicals to the air, water, land, or injected underground. Tennessee ranked No. 9 with 148,961,221 pounds in on- and off-site releases, and No. 7 for total on-site releases (141,943,517 pounds).
   There are nearly 650 toxic chemicals that must be reported to EPA by industries in the manufacturing sector. While TRI documents information on a significant portion of toxic chemicals being used by industry, it does not cover all toxic chemicals or all industry sectors. Also, facilities that do not meet TRI threshold levels (those with fewer than 10 full-time employees, or those not meeting the TRI reporting quantities) are not required to report.
   The 6.16 billion pounds of toxic chemicals released on- and off-site in 2001 represent only a portion of releases nationwide. The data does not include toxic emissions from cars, trucks, sources of pesticides, volatile organic compounds, or other non-industrial sources. Some data is based on actual monitoring, other data is only estimated, which leaves accuracy in question.
   The TRI program was expanded in 2000 to include chemicals of particular concern not only because they are toxic, but because they remain in the environment for long periods of time and can be passed on to humans through the food chain. In the human body they build up, or "bioaccumulate" in tissue, posing health threats. According to EPA, even relatively small releases of these "persistent bioaccumulative toxic chemicals," or PBTs such as dioxin, lead, mercury, and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), can pose health or environmental threats.
   EPA set three separate thresholds for PBT chemicals: 10 pounds for certain highly persistent, highly bioaccumulative toxic chemicals; 100 pounds for other PBT chemicals; and a special threshold of 0.1 grams for dioxin and dioxin-like chemicals. In addition to the 17 substances listed in the dioxin category, six other PBT chemicals have been added and new reporting thresholds set for chemicals already on the list.
   The longer a chemical remains unchanged in the environment, the greater the potential for exposure. As a result, smaller releases of a persistent, highly toxic chemical such as dioxin may create a more serious problem than larger releases of a chemical that is rapidly changed into a less toxic form. Mercury, for example, may become concentrated as it moves up the food chain, resulting in significant exposure to consumers, according to EPA.
   Releases of toxic chemicals to the air can result in exposure to humans and other organisms living near and downwind from industrial facilities. EPA says persistent chemicals may fall or precipitate from air onto land or into water bodies such as streams and lakes, resulting in exposure from use of the water for drinking, cooking and bathing.
   According to TRI data, eight chemicals were released from 19 industries in Carter County during 2001. On-site and off-site releases included: 39,478 pounds of certain glycol ethers, 1,572 pounds of chromium, 10 pounds of copper, 2,089 pounds of lead, and 1,030 pounds of nitric acid.
   Of the total chromium released, 10 pounds were through air emissions -- five pounds through stacks and five pounds through fugitive emissions (such as leaks or venting). The remaining 1,312 pounds were transferred for solidification/stabilization disposal.
   Five pounds of lead were released through stack air emissions, along with five pounds of copper. Nitric acid accounted for 1,025 pounds of stack air emissions and five pounds of fugitive emissions. Certain glycol ethers were released to the air through fugitive emissions totaling 2,264 pounds, while 36,964 pounds were sent up the stacks. Another 250 pounds were transferred for landfill disposal.
   Also, 1,755 pounds of lead were transferred for landfill/surface impoundment disposal, and another 297 pounds were transferred for other off-site management.
   In Sullivan County, 70 industries sent TRI reports to EPA. Among the persistent bioaccumulative toxic chemicals listed, more than 2,294 grams of dioxin and dioxin-like compounds were released on- and off-site. Of that total, over 4.5 grams were released to the atmosphere (4.2320 via stacks and 0.2820 fugitive emissions). Another 6.87 grams were discharged to water, and more than 5.84 grams were released to land. More than 2,277 grams were transferred for landfill/surface impoundment disposal.
   Mercury compounds totaling 35 pounds were released to the air and another 12 pounds were discharged to water. Air emissions for lead totaled 723 pounds and 3,677 pounds for lead compounds. Another 89 pounds of lead were discharged to water, along with 1,507 pounds of lead compounds.
   In Washington County, 55 industries released 18 reportable chemicals, including 255 pounds of chromium through air emissions, 49,025 pounds of 1,1-Dichloro-1-Fluoroethane through fugitive air emissions, 184 pounds of lead and 8 pounds of lead compounds through stack emissions; 103,072 pounds of methyl isobutyl ketone, 84,303 pounds of toluene, and 14,775 pounds of xylene through air emissions.
   The TRI program began in 1987 following a fatal chemical-release accident in Bhopal, India, and was expanded in 1994 to include federal facilities. Since that time, the number of reportable chemicals has nearly doubled.
   Of the 6.16 billion pounds of toxic chemicals released by industry, metal mining and electric utilities were responsible for more than half that total, with metal mining releasing 2.78 billion pounds and electric utilities 1.06 billion pounds. Uranium, radium and vanadium ores or services related to metal mining are not included in the TRI report.
   Air emissions accounted for over one-quarter of all releases, with electric utilities the largest air emitter (717.6 million pounds), followed by the chemical industry with 227.8 million pounds.
   Of the 283 federal facilities reporting, 172 were owned or operated by the Department of Defense (DOD), 26 by Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and 23 by the Department of Energy (DOE).
   TVA reported 61.4 million pounds of on- and off-site releases, or 79.6 percent of all releases by all federal facilities, including the largest amount of air emissions (41.3 million pounds) and other on-site land releases (landfills) of 18.76 million pounds.
   TVA also reported 49.8 percent of the total for all federal facilities (108.7 million pounds) in production-related waste managed, and 81 percent (46.5 million pounds) of the total treated on-site. The utility sent 1.3 million pounds of chemicals in waste off-site for further waste management, including 786,800 pounds for recycling and 546,700 pounds for disposal.
   The quantity of toxic chemicals in production-related waste for federal facilities was projected to drop by 5 percent between 2001 and 2003, with the largest decline, 4.5 percent, taking place in 2001. The reported change, however, was an increase of 3.6 percent.
   TVA anticipated almost no reductions in production-related waste in 2001 but reported a reduction of 11 percent from 2000 to 2001.
   Between 1998 and 2001, total on- and off-site releases reported by federal facilities increased from 64.1 million pounds to 73.2 million pounds, a rise of 14.3 percent. The change in the latest year, 2000 to 2001, was a decrease of 8.3 percent.
   TVA had the largest total releases on- and off-site in all three years, increasing from 58.7 million pounds in 1998 to 68.7 million pounds in 2000, followed by a decline of 15.4 percent to 58.1 million pounds in 2001, for an overall three-year decrease of 1.1 percent.
   DOD agencies reported an overall increase from 3.4 million pounds in 1998 to 11.7 million pounds in 2001, or over 200 percent.