Toxic chemical releases into the environment rose 5 percent in 2002, marking only the second such increase reported by the Environmental Protection Agency in nearly two decades, and the first since 1997.
Some 4.79 billion pounds were released in 2002, the latest for which figures are available, not including releases from metal mining, the EPA reports. The agency stopped including that data because of a recent court decision in an industry challenge.
The increase reversed a recent trend, and was a big turnaround from last year's report by EPA that chemical releases in 2001 had declined 13 percent from a year earlier.
Kimberly Terese Nelson, the EPA's chief information officer, blamed the "extraordinarily large change" on the 1999 shutdown of BHP Copper Co.'s San Manuel plant in Tucson, Arizona, where 2,000 people worked. Dismantling a plant turns components and product into waste.
"If we were to take that one facility out we would see a 3 percent decrease," Nelson said Tuesday of the releases of 650 chemicals by 24,379 facilities that EPA tracks. Last year, 25,388 facilities reported their findings.
EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said EPA's annual Toxics Release Inventory begun under a 1986 law wasn't meant to be all-inclusive of all types of emissions and chemicals. She called it "one of just several tools" for informing the public on that pollution.
EPA figures show 1997 was the only other year with an increase, 6 percent, in the several billion pounds of pollution allowed yearly into the air, water and ground in the United States.
Even so, a study by two environmental groups said EPA was underreporting the air pollution portion of releases of chemicals and emissions by 330 million pounds a year. They cast the inventory as particularly soft on refineries and chemical plants, keeping as much as 16 percent of the nation's air pollution "off the books."
"It's time that the EPA and the states deal with the problem of inaccurate and flawed reporting of toxic releases," said Kelly Haragan of the Rockefeller Family Fund's Environmental Integrity Project, which joined with Texas-based Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention in doing the study.
The National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, however, described the groups' conclusions as misleading, because other EPA data shows some decreases in nationwide air toxics emissions. It said the refining industry helped lower pollution through improved technology and management and cleaner gasolines.
"Ironically, if environmentalists intend to push for an even greater regulatory burden on refineries, they may complicate the smooth introduction of newer, cleaner fuels," the trade group said.
EPA reported a 10 percent increase in releases of mercury -- which Nelson blamed on a single gold mine -- and a 3.2 percent increase in releases of lead. It is the second year in a row that the EPA is requiring facilities to tell state and federal authorities about lead releases of more than 100 pounds. Previously, only much larger releases were reported.
Releases of dioxin, a chemical worrisome in even small amounts, decreased by 5 percent from the previous year.
Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vermont, a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the 2002 increase "proves that the policies of the Bush administration have moved us backward, not forward, on the environment."
The biggest polluters in recent years have been hard-rock mining companies and coal-burning power plants, and 2002 was no exception, according to the EPA.
Last year, Nelson told Congress the EPA and the White House Office of Management and Budget wanted to make reporting easier, faster and less burdensome for companies.
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