By Candia Dames
WASHINGTON – Maryland manufacturers released significantly fewer toxic chemicals into the environment in 1999 than they did a decade before, according to the latest statistics available from the Environmental Protection Agency.
A Capital News Service analysis of the 71 facilities that reported releases to the EPA in both 1988 and 1999 showed that 52 of them reported releasing smaller amounts of hazardous substances at the end of the period.
The reductions by the “original” companies on the Toxic Release Inventory came even though the EPA almost doubled the number of chemicals that had to be reported during that time, from 351 to 650, and lowered reporting thresholds.
The 71 original facilities reported a net reduction in toxic emissions of 57 percent during the period, slightly better than the overall state reduction of 55 percent. The 57 percent reduction represented a drop from 28 million pounds of toxins released in 1988 to 12 million in 1999.
Environmentalists greeted the numbers with skepticism, noting that the industries are trusted to report the release numbers on their own. But they conceded that, if the numbers are sound, some companies deserve a pat on the back.
Businesses and regulators said the lower emission statistics are real, and can be attributed to the fact that cleaning up toxins often makes economic sense.
“The environmental benefits that we’ve gotten out of it in some cases saves us money,” said David Williams, an environmental manager at W.R. Grace & Co. in Howard County. “Some of it costs us money, but because it’s the right thing to do we do it.”
Williams said toxic release from W.R. Grace declined even as its production of chemicals used in petroleum processing and plastic, toothpaste, paints and pharmaceutical production doubled since 1988.
Craig Yussen, EPA’s toxic release inventory coordinator, said he believes the reductions are success stories directly resulting from provisions in the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act that force companies to behave in a more environmentally sensitive manner.
Rhodia Inc., a manufacturer of concentrates used in the production of personal care items like shampoo, soaps and body washes, decreased the total release of toxins from its Baltimore site from 36,930 pounds in 1988 to 496 pounds in 1999. The decrease included formaldehyde and propylene oxide, substances the EPA said may be cancerous.
“Wherever Rhodia has a site we expect to be a member of the community that has a positive influence,” said site spokesman Jerry McGinnis. “One of our core values is to be as environmentally friendly as possible.”
Over the years, McGinnis said, the plant has changed a number of processes to minimize the release of deadly chemicals in the Baltimore area.
Williams said those companies that have implemented environmentally efficient practices may not be getting credit because of the “bad actors” who continue to increase pollution levels.
But companies that have reported sometimes dramatic increases challenge the suggestion that they are bad actors.
At Perdue Farms’ Salisbury Feed & Grain Facility, for instance, expanded production is blamed for an increase in reported toxic releases, from only 18 pounds in 1988 to 145,000 pounds in 1999. Perdue spokeswoman Tita Cherrier also noted that there were significantly more chemicals added to the EPA’s list since the first reporting year.
She said ongoing upgrades at the plant — which include the recent addition of a $1 million wastewater facility — will ensure that it remains in compliance with EPA standards.
The apparent progress of many of the original facilities was met with skepticism by some environmentalists.
Carol Andress, an economic specialist with Environmental Defense, said the chemicals that were added in more recent years may not have been ones that affect many companies because those companies don’t generally change basic production ingredients.
She said some facilities may have also gotten the upper hand in a “numbers game.”
“They could have changed their calculations and those numbers would have gone down because they have figured out that no one’s doing the enforcing,” Andress said.
She warned that comparing 1999 figures to 1988 figures could be misleading because “in the early days of TRI, the numbers were all over the place.”
But if companies are not “rigging the numbers,” it is good news, she said.
“For anybody living in those communities around those facilities, it would be valuable for them to know about this so they could pat those companies on the back,” Andress said. “But it would also be helpful to know if some companies are rigging the numbers.”
The decrease in toxic chemicals from manufacturing facilities could be an indication that the EPA’s toxic release disclosure program is working, said Jeannie Cho, an analyst with Abt Associates, a consulting firm that analyzes data for the EPA.
“The thought is that you’re policing your own area by having this data available,” Cho said. “I think because we have seen some improvements, the program is working toward its goal.”
While some companies may be releasing less, the true story of their environmental progress is not easily detectable, said Jeremiah Baumann, a toxic and environmental health advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Some may have reduced their releases, but they should be decreasing production of toxic chemicals because they ultimately go into the environment, Baumann said.
“Too often, industries will focus on their direct releases to the air and water but not to the total waste generated,” he said.