Toxic Releases on the Rise
Environment / Sulfuric acid. Nitrates. Ammonia. Lead. Some 2.6 million pounds of these and other toxic chemicals were used or generated in Hawaii in 2011 by facilities that produce electricity, treat sewage, refine oil into gasoline and train military troops.
That’s the word from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) latest Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). The report shows a 4-percent increase in releases over the previous year.
Though the rise may seem alarming, the TRI is not an accurate indication of human or environmental exposure or health risks, said Dean Higuchi, EPA public affairs specialist. “It’s not a release in terms of a company pouring all these things on the ground,” he explained. “All the facilities are required to manage their chemicals and their releases in different fashions, according to their permit conditions,” and many of the toxins are treated and/or disposed of properly, Higuchi said.
Still, toxins do get into the environment, such as lead from the bullets used in live-fire military training exercises. And on Maui, nitrogen in waters off Lahaina was traced to seepage from underground injection wells, an effluent disposal system used by sewage treatment plants around the state.
The top 10 toxins released in 2011 included:
1.2 million lbs. of sulfuric acid from burning low sulfur fuel to produce electricity,
407,091 lbs. of nitrate compounds,
148,986 lbs. of barium compounds,
122,573 lbs. of ammonia,
106,000 lbs. of hydrochloric acid,
74,478 lbs. of lead,
65,729 lbs. of n-hexane (a constituent of gasoline),
58,066 lbs. of xylene,
55,100 lbs. of n-butyl alcohol, and
53,446 lbs. of copper.
The figures reflect the activities of 36 facilities around the state, including electric generating stations, Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Schofield Barracks, the Marine Corps base in Kaneohe and its Puuloa Training Area, the Pohakuloa Training Area on Hawaii Island and oil refineries on Oahu and the Big Island. These facilities are required to participate in the TRI because they have more than 20 employees and manufacture, process or otherwise use large amounts of certain toxic chemicals.
In addition, underground injection releases of treated wastewater effluent increased 43 percent since 2010. Though the state Department of Health (DOH) regulates the practice to prevent contamination of underground drinking supplies, Earthjustice last year sued Maui County to make it seek a federal permit that would set limits on the pollutants that can be discharged from injection wells at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility. Conservationists believe the pollutants are contributing to algae growth that is smothering the reef.
Higuchi said there isn’t an easy way to assess whether toxic releases tracked by the TRI are resulting in actual environmental contamination. Such a determination would require a review of each facility, looking at such factors as compliance history, disposal reports and the ongoing air, water and solid waste monitoring conducted by the DOH.
With the TRI, people can ferret out this information themselves; it makes us aware of what’s going on in our neighborhoods. This information is useful to first responders, who need to know what chemicals may be present if they’re called to fight a fire, Higuchi said, and also to citizens who would like to “dialog with companies” about reducing emissions. “This is like a research tool,” he said. “The TRI is a way to understand what each facility does and how it’s doing it.”
As for industry’s role, “What we’re encouraging companies to do is look at pollution prevention measures that would actually save on treatment costs,” Higuchi said.
With regard to variation in the amount of releases from year to year, “It’s based upon what we as people do and what these companies need to do to accommodate whatever we’re doing,” he noted. For example, lead releases were higher in previous years because the military was conducting more training to prepare troops for battle in Iraq, Higuchi said. “Now that the troops are coming home, it’s gone down.”