Toxic pollutants released in Cook County increased more than 25 percent between 2010 and 2011 compared to a national increase of about 8 percent, according to data released Wednesday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The data is part of the EPA’s annual Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), which catalogs information on the release of chemical pollutants into the water, land and air across the country.
A representative of Cook County Environmental Control said the department had not had time to review the data thoroughly enough to make a statement.
The Chicago Metropolitan area accounts for 66 million pounds, or about 1.6 percent, of the more than 4 billion pounds of toxins released into the environment in 2011 nationally.
On-site releases, meaning waste disposal that occurred at the site of origin, and off-site disposals were almost equal. About 34.5 million pounds of toxic waste was released on-site and 31.5 million pounds was released off-site.
The primary metals industry, which mills and smelts metals, is responsible for the largest surface water and on-site land toxic chemical releases, according to the EPA report. Chemical releases into landfills come from waste disposal both on- and off-site.
Though overall toxic releases have increased, air pollution for 2011 shows an 8 percent decline nationally, with both Cook County and Illinois showing similar numbers.
“All of the programs under the Clean Air Act are adopted at a federal level and we implemented many of them,” said Laurel Kroack, bureau chief for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Bureau of Air. “We also have our own state programs that address ozone and toxic air contaminants.”
Acid gases, such as hydrochloric acid, are major components of the contaminants released into the air, most of which are produced by coal-fired power plants, according to a report by Environmental Health & Engineering, Inc.
While overall air emissions declined in 2011, some say it’s not enough.
“The problem in Chicago is there are still a lot of coal plants that don’t have modern controls,” said Brain Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs at the Respiratory Health Association. “So we’re still getting a lot of releases from those plants that are going to affect the entire Chicago Metropolitan area.”
In 2012, the Fisk and Crawford plants, two major coal-fired power plants in the Chicago area, were permanently closed.
“We’ll see a very significant shift in a lot of the numbers when the 2012 and 2013 TRI comes out because of the closure of Fisk and Crawford coal plants,” said Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Those facilities have a very significant impact on Chicago’s skies and their closure will have a significant impact on Cook County air quality.”
Urbaszewski estimates that modern pollution controls on coal plants could reduce acid gas emissions by as much as 90 percent, but many facilities are asking the state for variances or exemptions to delay the enforcement of pollution reduction policies.
“It’s really questionable whether they can survive in the long run,” Urbaszewski said of coal plants. “It’s questionable whether pollution controls will ever be put on those plants.”
The future of coal plants is up in the air due to cleaner and cheaper fuel options like natural gas.
“Nationally, the 2011 numbers are going to start to represent the very rapid shift from coal to natural gas,” Mogerman said. “That’s a function of economics more than anything else. The cheap cost of natural gas is offsetting the use of coal right now. That has a very positive impact on pollution and air quality.”
Air quality improvements were offset by overall toxic material releases in landfills and water, creating the overall 8 percent increase in toxic emissions for 2011.
According to a press release from the EPA, toxic surface water emissions into the entire Great Lakes basin increased 12 percent in 2011.
“That’s a sign that we have to be ever-vigilant about protecting these Great Lakes,” said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club Illinois Chapter. “They’re a source of drinking water for much of the region and they do face threats.”
According to Darin, fuel production could pose a major threat to the Great Lakes in the near future.
“As oil refineries consider shifting to dirtier tar sands from Canada, they will be looking to dump more water pollutants into the Great Lakes.” Darin said. “It’s an example of a pollution threat on the horizon for the Great Lakes.”
In a press release, the EPA attributed the overall toxic release rise to an increase in waste from the metal mining industry, which is dominant in the western United States.
“The increase this year was mainly due to increases at a small number of facilities that reported an increase in waste rock disposal, changes in the chemical concentration of waster rock, and no longer qualifying for (exemptions),” an EPA representative said.
There are no metal mining facilities in Cook County or the state of Illinois.