Toxic chemical releases increased 16 percent in 2010, largely driven by the metal mining sector.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the total increase Thursday, following years of decline. Toxic emissions to air, soil and water totaled 3.93 billion pounds in 2010, compared to 3.39 billion pounds in 2009. This includes annual increases in a number of toxic chemicals and metals, including lead, dioxins and carcinogens.
"The increase from 2009 to 2010 in disposal or other releases could be due to a change in the composition of raw materials used at facilities, for example, a change in the chemical composition of ore bodies at metal mines," The EPA said in its 2010 Toxic Release inventory (TRI) Analysis. "Other possible reasons for an increase include changes in management methods, changes in release estimation methods, changes in production, increases in chemical use, or an economic change."
The metal mining sector accounted for 41 percent of all disposal or other releases in 2010. The 1.6 million pounds of toxic releases in the sector last year grew 43 percent over 2010.
In a statement released yesterday, the National Mining Association attributed the sector's large share of toxic releases to the make-up of the ore being excavated, as well as increased demand for U.S. metals in step with the economic recovery.
"Nearly all -- 85 to 99 percent (by volume) -- of the substances reported by mining operations occur naturally in the local rock and soil and remain in low concentrations in the large amount of material handled and managed at specially designed on-site facilities permitted and regulated by state and federal laws," the NMA said.
"Because these naturally occurring trace amounts are covered by TRI, mining operations make up a large portion of the releases to land for on-site management that were reported by all operations in 2010."
Among the sea of data were a couple startling figures. Lead disposal or releases surged 51 percent in 2010 compared to the year before, which the EPA attributed to the metal mining sector. Disposal or releases of carcinogens soared 67 percent in 2010 compared to the year before.
While the annual results are largely moving in the wrong direction, the long-term trends are more promising. Total releases and disposals in 2010 are 30 percent lower than in 2001; during the same 10-year period, releases of mercury, dioxins, PBTs and carcinogens.
Next page: Trends in how companies are managing their toxic waste