Tracking EU & US pollution data

10th February 2014


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Conrad Ashton

Jonathan Nwagbaraocha and Ana Santos on the latest pollution and waste transfer information from Europe and the US, and how companies can best use the data

Every year, the authorities in the US and the EU publish data on pollutant releases and waste transfers from industrial facilities in their territories. The data for 2011 - the most recent available - reveals some interesting trends, including which sectors are the largest polluters; which substances are being released; the types of waste being transferred; what pollution reduction techniques are being implemented; and changes to reporting requirements.

The European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR) data, published in May 2013, and the pollutant release and waste transfer data reported in January 2013 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as part of the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) both cover 2011. TRI and E-PRTR 2011 trend data are useful not only for policymakers in deciding whether further regulation is required, but also for companies as they prioritise how to effectively reduce pollutant emissions and comply with changing reporting obligations.

2011 and all that

The 2011 TRI data reveals an 8% increase in disposal and other releases of chemicals compared with 2010, while the number of facilities reporting fell by 1% to 20,927. Although air releases decreased, land releases increased and production-related waste rose. The EPA concluded that the 8% increase in toxic chemical releases in the US was the result of the metal mining sector - facilities mining copper, lead, zinc, silver, gold and other metals - increasing onsite land disposal. By contrast, other sectors, including utilities, chemicals, primary metals, paper and food sectors, reported a fall in releases.

Notably, there was an increase in production-related waste in 2011 for some sectors. Waste from the chemicals manufacturing sector increased by more than 3%, having risen by a similar amount between 2009 and 2010. Production-related waste includes waste that is recycled, burned for energy recovery or treated, as well as disposed of or otherwise released.

The 2011 E-PRTR data was gathered from 30,916 industrial facilities, located in 27 EU member states (Croatia excluded), as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Serbia and Switzerland. The number of reporting facilities increased by 2% from 2010, mainly due to a larger number of facilities reporting waste transfers in 2011. Analysis of the E-PRTR data for 2011 indicates that:

  • thermal power plants and other combustion installations (excluding biomass) generated 67.7% of CO2 emissions, and 60.7% of emissions of arsenic and its compounds;
  • 85.7% of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) releases originated from the production of iron, steel, cement clinker and lime;
  • 15% of all releases of cadmium and cadmium compounds were from Portuguese facilities; and
  • sites in Belgium and Italy accounted for 74% of all releases of PCBs.

Analysis of E-PRTR data for the years 2007-11 shows that there was a slight reduction of releases into the ambient air, water and soil during this period.

Data on waste transfers, however, show that they increased significantly between 2007 and 2011, with a big increase in 2010, followed by a reduction the following year. Compared with 2010, the amount of waste transfered in 2011 declined by:

  • 16% for non-hazardous waste - from 544.8 million tonnes to 457.4 million tonnes;
  • 9% for domestic hazardous waste - from 53.4 million tonnes to 48.6 million tonnes; and
  • 3% for transboundary hazardous waste - from 3.3 million tonnes to 3.2 million tonnes.

Drilling down

The E-PRTR and TRI data reveal that the sectors contributing most to pollutant releases and waste transfers are generally the same in Europe and the US. The major difference between the two is the relative level of contribution to pollutant releases and transfers.

As was noted earlier, the largest sector contributing to pollutant releases and disposal in the US was metal mining. It accounted for 46% of the total reported pollutant releases and waste transfers in 2011. Metal mining was followed by the electricity sector (15%) and the chemicals industry (12%). The characteristics of pollutants released and disposed by metal mining operations in the US may explain the increase of specific substances between 2010 and 2011. For example, the EPA reported that the growth of mercury and lead was the result of the greater land releases of pollutants by the industry.

While the metal mining industry was the largest contributor in the US, this is not the case in Europe, which has generally seen a decline in mining over the past few decades. In 2011, releases to air in Europe were dominated by facilities in the energy, minerals and cement, and chemical sectors. The mineral industry includes activities such as mining and related operations. The mineral mining sector in Europe reported that it released 3 tonnes of mercury and compound releases into the air in 2011 - 10% of total reported releases of mercury to air. By contrast, the energy sector and chemical industry contributed 16.9 tonnes and 3.3 tonnes of mercury, respectively.

In the Europe, there were significant falls in reported releases of some substances in 2011, but big rises in others. For example, there was an 85% reduction of anthracene releases into water and a 70% fall in chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) releases to air. However, sulphur hexafluoride releases to air increased by almost 400% between 2010 and 2011, following a reduction between 2007 and 2010. Releases of chromium and its compounds into water also swelled, rising 180%, following a 64% reduction between 2007 and 2010.

Releases of CO2 from European facilities reporting throughout 2007-11 decreased by around 6%.

Facilities in the US do not report CO2 emissions to TRI, but do under the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Rule. In 2011, US facilities released 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere, compared with 3.2 billion tonnes in 2010. Other examples of increasing pollutant release and waste transfers in the US include:

  • 102% increase between 2009 and 2011 in the amount of lead and lead compounds released or disposed of;
  • 35% rise in disposal or other releases of dioxins in 2011 compared with 2010; and
  • 4% increase in production-related waste between 2010 and 2011.

Like their European counterparts, US facilities also scaled back some air pollutant releases and waste transfers in 2011. For example, there was an overall 10% decrease in air releases of mercury and its compounds in 2011 compared with 2010, and a 3% fall in releases of known or suspected carcinogens into the air.

Analysis of the E-PRTR and TRI data indicates that efforts to reduce releases of pollutants are yielding results. Releases of mercury are declining in both the US and Europe, for example, after numerous efforts to reduce emissions, including: the protocol on heavy metals in the 1998 convention on long-range transboundary air pollution, which includes limit values and deadlines for emissions reduction for new and existing stationary sources; and the EU mercury strategy, which paved the way for, among others, restrictions on mercury emissions from certain facilities, a ban on mercury exports and restrictions on the inclusion of mercury and its compounds in measuring devices, batteries, and electrical and electronic equipment.

The EPA has stated that likely reasons for the continued decrease of incidences of hazardous air pollutants include a shift in the US from coal to other fuel sources, and the installation of control technologies at coal-fired power plants.

Making use of the data

Pollutant release and waste transfer data can influence future action taken by policymakers as they try to prevent releases of harmful substances. The successful reduction of certain substances may provide evidence to policymakers on the most effective ways to tackle other pollutants, especially where there are increasing incidences of releases into the environment. The TRI data may demonstrate that establishing emission limits and stringent control technology, along with encouraging the use of alternative industrial processes that generate less pollution, is the most efficient approach.

The data are also useful to companies seeking to identify what substances to focus on in pollution control programmes. Implementing pollution prevention activities could result in the release of fewer pollutants and reduce the amount of waste needing to be transferred. In its 2011 report, the EPA stated that disposal or releases of pollutants and production-related waste can increase or decrease owing to several factors, such as: changes in operations at facilities that alter the chemicals they use; the adoption of pollution prevention activities; or changes in business activity.

In addition to reporting pollutant releases and transfers to the TRI, US facilities also report source reduction activities they have implemented. In 2011, 2,509 or 12% of all TRI facilities implemented a total of 8,430 source reduction actions. These included improvements to site maintenance schedules; modifications to processes; and the introduction of raw materials of higher quality (greater purity).

While comparative data is not available for the E-PRTR, the source reductions techniques cited in the US can be implemented at any facility. Source reduction measures have been established per type of activity in best available techniques reference documents.

A changing picture

Awareness of changes to pollution reporting requirements is crucial. In 2011, there were 16 new substances added to the list of reportable substances under the TRI. These substances were classified as being “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the US national toxicology programme, and include: 1-Amino-2,4-Dibromoanthraquinone, furan, glycidol and nitromethane. These substances are used in a variety of chemical processes, ranging from the synthesis of derivatives used as pharmaceuticals to the manufacture of vat dyes typically used with cotton, wool, and cellulose acetate. Furthermore, new reporting processes were introduced for US facilities on 21 January 2014, requiring them to submit all non-confidential reports to the EPA using the TRI-MEweb application.

Changes to the list of substances covered by reporting obligations or in how to submit data may have an impact on the costs associated with compliance, so preparation is critical. The first step is to ensure an internal procedure is in place to track regulatory developments that might impact reporting obligations. The next step involves determining how internal procedures need to be revised to ensure compliance. Keeping an eye on published information, such as the E-PRTR and TRI data, provides companies with a useful insight into trends in pollutant releases and waste transfers from different sectors and regions, and will help to ensure ongoing compliance with the duty to report.


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