Who's the Industrial Villain Now?

Who doesn't suspect the hand of "big business" behind the evils of pollution? The image of a huge factory belching gases, oozing contaminants and burying its "mistakes" is an archetype of modern civilization, just as the "friendly neighborhood business" gives us the same warm, cuddly feeling as eating mom's lasagne. Prepare to open your mind to alternative realities.

This week the Commission for Environmental Cooperation released a report, Taking Stock, which compares the Pollutant Release and Transfer Reports for 2004 of the USA, Canada and Mexico. The most surprising finding in the report: while large industry cut emissions by 33%, the smallest polluters increased their pollution by as much as five-fold, although the number of facilities reporting did not increase.
What does TreeHugger take away from this news? Reporting is working. The transparency allows neighbors to see what businesses near them are doing to their environment. And industry is hearing the message: this is not a list they want to top. However, the smallest polluters tend to fly under the radar because their total emissions are still a small fraction of the overall pollution.

The Pollutant Release and Transfer Reporting, often abbreviated PRTR, is required in the USA since 1987, in Canada since 1993 and is published for the first time in Mexico with the data first required to be reported in 2004. Companies which manufacture over a certain amount of chemicals (around 10 tons) or use more than a certain amount (around 5 tons), and which have more than a minimum number of employees (around 10). The comparison between the reports of the three countries is complicated by the fact that thresholds for chemicals vary and may also be lower for specifically listed chemicals, or may apply also in case of a minimum amount released into the environment, rather than manufactured/used. Companies must report chemical wastes releases of all types: to the air, to the water, to landfills or deepwells, or sent off-site for disposal or recycling.

Some interesting points in Taking Stock:

  • Industry in Canada sends more waste to recycling facilities (63%) than their counterparts in the US(43%) or Mexico (34%).

  • Pollutants spewed into the air account for over a quarter of total releases (28%) in Mexico. This potentially means that human and environmental exposure could be greatly reduced by comparison to the American (11%) and Canadian (6%) facilities. However, since this is the first year of reporting in Mexico, differences may also stem from non-standardized techniques for estimating emissions.

  • The Oil and Gas Extraction industry is required to report releases in Mexico and Canada, but not in the USA. This sector accounts for 10% of total releases in Mexico. In Canada, the sector is responsible for the majority (58%) of hydrogen sulfide emissions. Long term low levels of exposure to hydrogen sulfide may cause headaches, fatigue, dizziness, irritability and loss of sexual desire, according to one toxicology database.

  • The facilities that reported applying pollution prevention also show significantly better reductions in emissions than reporters who do not claim to use this important waste minimization approach.

You can see the full report for yourself at Taking Stock (pdf).

Via ::Globe and Mail
Image via ::Flickr, Kenny Maths

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