Coal & Oil Electric Utilities Are Major Polluters
1998's Toxic Release Inventory was the first set of data available on toxic
emissions from coal and oil burning electric utilities.
Nationwide, the chemicals that contributed the most to the electric utility
sector's total releases were hydrochloric acid, barium
compounds, and sulfuric acid. The
majority of the releases of hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid were to air
and the majority of the releases of barium compounds were to land on-site.
In 1998, these three chemicals made up 79.2% of the total releases for the
electric utility sector. (Note that some chemicals which the electric
utilities release in significant quantities, SOx, NOx, and CO are not on
Most of the releases from electric utilities are the result of burning coal
or oil to generate electricity. Both coal and oil contain metals that are
released to the air when the fuel is combusted. These metals include
barium, copper, chromium, manganese, lead, nickel and zinc. Other chemicals
formed during combustion include hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, and
hydrogen fluoride. The ash that remains after coal is combusted will also
contain metals. Large quantities of this ash may be disposed of in on- or
off-site landfills, or returned to coal mines for disposal there.
The electric power industry is the largest single contributor to air pollution, due to exemptions in the Clean Air Act on controls of smog and acid rain forming pollutants. The TRI shows that they have some of the largest toxic chemical releases to the environment.
ELECTRIC UTILITIES AND THE 1998 TOXICS RELEASE INVENTORY
What's New About The 1998 Toxics Release Inventory?
This year for the first time the Toxics Release Inventory will include
releases to the land, water, and air from coal and oil burning electric
Why Didn't Utilities Have To Report Under TRI In The Past?
Originally the TRI required only manufacturing companies to report their
annual toxic releases. However, in 1997 a coalition of public interest
groups convinced EPA to add seven non-manufacturing industries based on
information that they were major sources of toxic pollution. Electric
power was one of those industries.
What Power Plant Pollutants Are Reported Under The TRI, And What Are The Health Impacts Of These Pollutants?
Power plants have to report their releases of a number of toxic compounds.
These include acutely toxic gases like hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid and
hydrogen fluoride as well as metals like chromium, lead, and barium, that
can be emitted as fine particles. Power plants also release heavy metals
like chromium, arsenic, and nickel through combustion waste that can leach
into surface and groundwater. Mercury is released directly into the air
and also onto land as combustion waste (although mercury was mostly not
reported to the 1998 TRI-see below).
Over 21 million Americans live within five miles of a coal plant. Exposure
can occur from breathing contaminated air, drinking contaminated water,
eating contaminated fish and other foods. Lead and mercury are well-known
developmental toxins, while arsenic is a carcinogen. EPA lists less than
1% of the 70,000 synthetic chemicals used in the market.
For example, excess cancer risks for children drinking groundwater
contaminated with arsenic from power plant wastes have been found to be as
high as one-in-one hundred -- ten thousand times higher than EPA's
regulatory goal of reducing cancer risks to less than one-in-one million.
What Do The 1998 TRI Releases From Electric Utilities Tell Us?
Toxic releases from coal and oil burning power plants are immense, making
them one of the largest sources of toxic pollution in the U.S. Each year
they release millions of pounds of heavy metals and toxic acid gases into
the environment, nearly all of which is unregulated.
How Does The Electric Utility Industry Compare To Other Major Industries That Are Required To Report To The TRI?
In states where the 1998 TRI reports have already been released to the
press, electric utilities are surpassing many manufacturing companies in
total toxic chemical releases. They are either the new number one source
of toxic pollution, or close to number one. For example, in Virginia,
coal-fired plants hold six of the top ten toxic polluter slots.
How Accurate Is The Data Reported To The TRI?
The release data reported to the TRI is based on industry estimates, not
actual monitoring. Also, given the reporting thresholds, not all releases
are being reported. For example, mercury releases are not included in the
1998 TRI although we know that they release (to the air and land) nearly
200,000 pounds of this toxic metal annually. (Mercury releases will be in
the 2000 TRI, which won't be publicly available until Spring 2002 - EPA
lowered the reporting threshold for mercury and several other persistent,
bio-accumulative toxic compounds starting with the 2000 reporting year.)
Nevertheless, while the TRI may not tell us the whole story, it is the only
publicly available data on toxic chemical releases from electric utilities.
Why Is The TRI Data From Electric Utilities Important?
It confirms what we already know, that coal and oil are dirty fuels. And
it begs the question: Why isn't this industry regulated for its toxic
What Should Be Done About Utilities' Toxic Releases?
EPA can significantly reduce the human health and ecological impact of
utilities' toxic chemical releases. EPA has the authority to regulate
toxic air emissions and toxic coal combustion waste. To date, they have
failed to do either, and this needs to change.
By December 2000, the EPA must determine whether to control air toxics
emissions from power plants. On April 3rd, 280 citizens' organizations
representing 36 states delivered a letter to EPA Administrator Carol
Browner urging the agency to regulate toxic air emissions and coal
combustion waste immediately. Caving to industry pressure, the
Administration recently decided against regulating coal waste under federal
solid waste laws despite the concerns of scientists within EPA that the
wastes are hazardous and pose a potential threat to public health.
Last modified: 15 February 2004