EPA Releases 2010 TRI National Analysis

January 18, 2012

A fresh trove of data just became available for reporters who want to find national (as well as local and regional) toxic pollution stories.

EPA released on Jan. 5, 2012, its analysis of Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data for 2010. The analysis can be a useful starting point for targeting angles you want to investigate. The raw data, which were posted online in July 2011, and updated in August, September, and October, also offer numerous ways to look at occurrences and trends in many ways nationally and locally the agency hasn't addressed or emphasized in its analysis.

Among the observations:

  • Overall, there was a 16% increase in toxics pumped into the environment — despite a 2% decrease in facilities reporting — reversing the decline in toxic releases that had occurred each year since 2001 (with the exception of an increase in 2005). EPA lists many reasons why the 2009-2010 increase occurred, though none appear to be tied to changes in TRI requirements. Much of the increase was due to reports from just four metal mining facilities in Alaska, Nevada, and Utah. In addition, 1,648 facilities that didn't report for 2009 did so for 2010.
  • There were substantial increases in disposal of several persistent, bioaccumulative toxics, including lead, dioxins, polycyclic aromatic compounds, and polychlorinated biphenyls. Air releases for lead increased 22%.
  • Disposal or release of carcinogens increased 67%, primarily through various types of land disposal.
  • Industry sectors with the greatest increase in disposal or other releases included metal mining (43%), primary metals (20%), chemical manufacturing (19%), transportation (19%), petroleum (2%), and paper and paper products (1%). Federal facilities reported an 11% increase.
  • Industry sectors with the greatest decrease in disposal or other releases included electric utilities (-12%), plastics and rubber (-5%), and hazardous waste management (-2%).

The analysis generally breaks the data out by industry sector, such as chemical manufacturers, cement facilities, electric utilities, or metal mining. It also breaks data out by method of release to the environment, such as air release, on-site or off-site disposal (e.g., via landfill or underground injection), or on-site or off-site recycling. There is analysis and data for various geographic criteria, such as state and county, 13 selected major urban areas, 10 large aquatic ecosystems, or 14 Indian tribes or Alaska Native Villages that reported TRI data.

Another option for collecting and evaluating TRI data is through the Right-to-Know Network's database that uses EPA data. The latest data are for 2009; 2010 data are expected to be available by early February 2012. 

Keep in mind that TRI data have many limitations. For instance, they are voluntarily submitted by the pollution sources, and the numbers often are estimates, not measured quantities. The data cover only some industries and a small fraction of all known chemicals, and those chemicals must be reported only when they accumulate above certain thresholds. Certain incidents, such as the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, aren't covered, nor are secondary pollutants that are created when the reported pollutants interact in air, water, or underground. TRI requirements have changed over time so you can compare current data to only a short historical record. And the amount of emissions is only one factor in risk posed, since it doesn't cover exposure pathway, timing of exposure, effects of multiple exposures, and other factors.

Despite these and other limitations, the data provide a useful starting point for investigating the toxic burden imposed on your audience, in part because they often are the best or only information available.