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Online release of North American industrial pollution data reveals significant reporting gaps

  • Oil and gas extraction, mining, and wastewater treatment stand out as clear examples where data reporting needs to improve
  • Taking Stock Online provides integrated, publicly accessible pollution data from industrial facilities across the continent

Taking Stock Online, released today by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, provides the latest integrated North American data and most comprehensive picture of industrial pollution across North America, documenting reported releases and transfers of 5.7 billion kilograms of toxic pollutants in 2006 from industrial facilities in Canada, Mexico and the United States.

The North American picture is incomplete however, as a combination of national reporting exemptions for certain sectors and pollutants and incomplete reporting by some facilities reveal significant gaps in the portrait of how much pollution is generated and managed by North American industry.

"Regional cooperation on environmental issues depends on comparable and complete data from Canada, Mexico and the United States," said Evan Lloyd, Executive Director of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. "This information is critical for governments, industry and citizens to address pollution and ensure healthy communities and ecosystems."

Taking Stock Online, published today, presents the latest integrated data set from North America's pollutant release and transfer registers (PRTRs) and features an integrated, multi-year database covering over 500 toxic substances and almost 100 major industrial sectors reporting to the PRTRs of Canada, Mexico and the United States. The site also features new tools to assist in data analysis, including a tool to explore data on pollutants transferred across national borders.

The CEC's Taking Stock Online site is updated annually and allows users to:

Explore information on industrial pollutant releases and transfers;

Generate reports in a variety of formats including pie charts and spreadsheets;

Create maps and view them using Google Earth;

Analyze PRTR data with respect to other information such as watersheds, rivers and lakes, and population centers using geospatial data from the North American Environmental Atlas.

Different reporting requirements reveal gaps

Top industrial sectors reporting releases and transfers in North America included metal mining and activities related to the oil and gas extraction sector; fossil-fuel power plants; chemicals manufacturing; and primary metals manufacturing. Reporting requirements vary by country for some sectors and pollutants, revealing important gaps in the tracking of industrial pollution at a North American level-for example:

The oil and gas extraction sector is exempt from reporting under the US Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), as is hydrogen sulfide (the pollutant reported in largest proportions by this same sector in Canada). In Mexico, the reporting threshold for this pollutant is lower than in Canada and the United States, but zero hydrogen sulfide emissions were reported by the oil and gas extraction sector in 2006.

Some of the toxic pollutants reported in the greatest volume in Canada and the United States, such as carbon disulfide, zinc compounds, methanol, and hydrochloric acid, are exempt from the Mexican reporting system (RETC). As a result, once these pollutants are transferred across the border-for example when zinc is transferred from the United States to Mexico for disposal or recycling-they cannot be tracked.

Data for the public wastewater treatment sector offer a clear example of inconsistencies among national reporting requirements, and under-reporting: this sector accounted for 84% of all reported Canadian discharges to water in 2006; in the United States, the public wastewater treatment sector is exempt from TRI reporting; and in Mexico, although facilities discharging to national water bodies are required to report to RETC, very few wastewater treatment plants did so in 2006.

Progress is being made by governments to close these gaps-such as removing exemptions for sectors and adding substances subject to PRTR reporting. For example, Canada's National Pollutant Release Inventory removed the exemption for disposal of mining tailings and waste rock, which should result in an increase in reporting by Canadian mines next year. Considering the data reported in 2006 by US metal mines, this step is potentially significant for better understanding industries' releases and handling of pollutants of particular concern. Metal mines in the states of Alaska, Nevada, Utah and Arizona, for example, reported releases to land-often in waste piles or uncovered areas-of millions of kilograms of heavy metals including lead and mercury compounds, both of which are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic pollutants.

Today's release of online PRTR data and analytical tools will be complemented with further analyses and information in the CEC's Taking Stock report to be released later this year. It will feature a special analysis of North American industrial pollutant releases to water, with a more detailed look at the sources and amounts as well as their potential impacts on the environment. Last year's Taking Stock report provided an in-depth look at pollutant reporting from North American's petroleum industry.

Eduardo Viadas | EurekAlert!
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