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TRI Report Chart - CIties

Kate Van Winkle/MEDILL

Total toxic emissions by metropolitan area. Based on data from the EPA Toxics Release Inventory.

Air quality in Cook County perking up

by Kate Van Winkle
Jan 22, 2013

TRI Chart - Industry

Kate Van Winkle/MEDILL

Toxic emissions from three major industries, compared by city.

Based on data from the EPA Toxics Release Inventory.

Cook County Environmental Control collected data on smog, particles, toxic chemicals and other pollutants to help determine that air quality here is getting cleaner. 

“A lot of this data is actually coming from our work and we’re very proud of that,” said Deborah Stone, who heads the county department. “This data allows the EPA to make policies.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory database, announced last week, shows an 8 percent decrease in toxic air pollutants for 2011. Cook County improvements matched the national cleanup for toxic chemicals in the air.

The decrease is consistent with the national average and is widely attributed to more stringent pollution restrictions in the Clean Air Act. But while air quality is improving, overall toxic emissions in Cook County increased by more than 25 percent compared to an 8 percent increase nationally, according to the EPA report.

Stone said her department is focused primarily on air issues and manages equipment throughout the county to measure air quality and composition. The county also has several other initiatives underway to combat pollution, she said.

“We have two major contracts to do energy efficiency work,” Stone said, “Because of the investments that we’re making to save energy, we’re going to reduce energy use by about 20 percent.”

The department is also working with the Department of Transportation and Highways and the Forest Preserve to put pollution controls on heavy emission diesel vehicles used in construction and maintenance.

“We have what we think is a pretty cutting edge program,” Stone said.

Though the TRI data seems to show a sizable increase in toxic pollution, even environmental advocates say the numbers may not tell the whole story.

“Sometimes shifts like that {25 percent] will happen because of better record keeping and monitoring,” said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club Illinois Chapter. “Increases like that are sometimes an increase in measured pollution, rather than actual pollution.”

According to the report, the primary metals industry, which mills and smelts metals such as steel and iron, is largely responsible for toxic emissions in the Chicago metropolitan area. The industry released more than 39 million pounds of toxic waste here in 2011.

The primary metals industry is also responsible for the lion’s share of 2011 toxic releases in the Greater St. Louis area, accounting for nearly 14.5 million pounds of the city’s 26 million pounds of toxic emissions. Overall toxic emissions in the St. Louis area decreased, however.

Primary metals accounted for more than two-thirds of landfill disposals and water releases in the Chicago area in 2011.

“The thing about these discharges, the land disposal might be to hazardous waste disposals,” said Diane Bailey, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “If you dispose of the waste in a landfill and if the landfill meets all of the requirements then it’s really not that bad. I’m hard pressed to think of a situation with water releases where that’s okay.”

Cook County Environmental Control is working with the EPA and other organizations to combat air pollution by reducing energy use, Stone said.

“We’re trying to reduce our own emissions and lead by example,” Stone said.