Mining company, power plants accounts for most toxic releases

WASHINGTON - Hardrock mining companies and electric power plants accounted for nearly two-thirds of the 7.3 billion pounds of toxic chemicals released into the environment by industry in 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday.

For the first time in its 11 years, the annual Toxic Release Inventory report included releases from gold, copper and other hardrock mining as well as the electric utility industry. These additions were required by an executive order in 1997 from President Clinton to expand the reporting scope.

Ironically, the expansion appears - at least on paper - to be good news for Texas, where toxic air pollution has become an issue in the presidential race between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore.

With the addition of the mining industry, Texas no longer stands as the state with the highest volume of toxic emissions, replaced by four mining states: Nevada, 1.3 billion pounds; Arizona, 1.1 billion pounds; Utah, 459 million pounds; and Alaska, 306 million pounds.

Texas still leads the original reporting industries, pouring 260 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment, about 40 percent of into the air.

That prompted, within hours of the release of the EPA's report, a statement from Vice President Al Gore's campaign declaring that ''under George W. Bush Texas remains one of the most polluted states in the country.''

There was no immediate comment from the Bush campaign.

In the past, Bush spokesmen have said that it is only expected the state would have high releases because of its large concentration of chemical plants, but that the state also has led the country in chemical emission reductions.

The EPA data reflect releases in 1998 and agency officials cautioned the information should be used as a guide and not necessarily an indicator of health risk because the report does not provide information on exposure or specific toxicity of the high-volume chemicals.

Also the reports from 23,487 facilities around the country include large amounts of chemicals releases that are classified as going into the environment, but are released within plant or mining site boundaries. That is especially the case in releases reported by the mining companies. Overall on-site releases accounted for 94 percent of the total 7.3 billion pounds.

Environmentalists maintain that even when some of the chemicals are kept on site, eventually some get into the air or into groundwater or otherwise into the environment.

EPA Administrator Carol Browner said the report is a valuable ''right to know'' tool for the public to gauge potential healthy concerns.

The EPA said that hard rock mining companies released 3.5 billion pounds of chemicals into the air, land and water, although all but about 1.3 million pounds was kept on the mine sites. Electric utilities dumped more than 1.1 billion pounds, about 70 percent of it into the air through the power plant smokestacks, mostly coal-burning plants, the agency aid.

Those numbers dwarfed releases by the broad section of industry that for years have been required to make annual reports. For example chemical plants, the previous leader, reported 737 million pounds of releases in 1998. In all, the original industries released nearly 2.4 billion pounds of toxic materials.

This year's report cannot easily be compared with previous reports because of the addition of the seven new industry sectors. But the EPA said among the original industry sectors, toxic releases have declined by 45 percent over 11 years. Overall releases also were down slightly from the previous year.


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