A recent article in Forbes Magazine caused quite a stir, calling Utah the third-most toxic place in America.
But it’s a little more complicated than that.
The original reporting for the Forbes story came from Ode to Clean, a company focused on “creating low-cost, environmentally-conscious alternatives to chemical manufacturing.” While its mission is admirable, it’s not exactly an unbiased source. Ode got its toxin data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, or TRI.
The TRI reports Utah released more than 272 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment last year. That is, indeed, the third-highest number in the nation, behind Nevada’s 317 million pounds and Alaska’s 834 million pounds of toxic releases.
To understand what those numbers mean, however, it’s useful to have some background.
Congress established the Toxic Release Inventory in 1986, after the public called for more transparency about how industries manage their toxic chemicals, following a tragic incident two years earlier in Bhopal, India, where thousands of people died as a result of a toxic gas leak at the Union Carbide chemical plant.
Industries now have to provide public information about chemicals released from their plants. But the definition of “release” is tricky.
Utah’s high TRI number mostly comes from a single source — Rio Tinto’s Kennecott mine and refinery in Salt Lake County. That industry alone reported 249 million pounds of toxic chemical releases last year. But it’s a mining operation moving around huge quantities of rock with metals locked inside. Those rocks mostly stay on-site.
Still, the EPA considers the metals contained in those rocks “releases” because they’re considered mining overburden.
“Therefore, any region with a mining operation will rank very high on the list. We have the largest open-pit mine in the world in our metropolitan area, which moves hundreds of millions of tons of rock and tailings each year,” said Alan Matheson, executive director of Utah Department of Environmental Quality, in an emailed statement.
“The materials moved during mining, however, have low concentrations of metals and are regulated to minimize health impacts,” he added.
It doesn’t quite make Utah “toxic” either because the TRI isn’t an inventory of whether humans are breathing, touching, drinking or eating the reported chemicals.
Rather than a tool that tracks toxic releases to the environment — and exposes humans to health impacts — it’s helpful to think of the TRI as a toxin movement inventory, said Dale Urban, DEQ’s site assessment and environmental response section manager.
“Whether it’s moved within a facility or transferred from one facility to another or released into the environment,” he said. “Not all releases result in exposure.”
Off-site vs. on-site
It gets more convoluted.
Some of the toxic chemicals reported to TRI remain on-site, whether they’re rocks from mining overburden or liquids in settling ponds. The EPA’s definition of an “on-site” release is confusing, however. Fugitive dust, smokestack emissions and stormwater runoff, for example, are still considered on-site releases, even though the toxins leave the site through the environment.
The EPA calls a release “off-site” when it’s removed and processed somewhere else, like a recycling center or a wastewater treatment plant.
In the DEQ’s 2015 TRI Data Summary, its most recent report, there were 8.3 millions pounds of toxic releases to the air — up by 30 percent compared to 2014. Still, that figure is much lower compared to the years just after the TRI was enacted. In 1989, for example, 135 million pounds of toxic chemicals were released into Utah skies.
That doesn’t mean the public shouldn’t worry.
Last year, Kennecott sent more than 5,600 pounds of lead compounds up its smokestack, according to their TRI report. Another 5,400 pounds blew from the site as fugitive dust or “non-point air emissions.”
Lead isn’t the only toxin becoming airborne from the Kennecott site. That concerns Brian Moench with Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
“What (gets) overlooked is the fact that the dust is, in fact, toxic and contaminated with low levels of heavy metals that get scattered throughout the environment,” he said.
Even if they’re released at low levels, heavy metals like lead and copper compounds build up in the environment over time. They don’t burn or biodegrade. Some toxins from mining and manufacturing released into the Great Salt Lake many decades before the TRI are still present in the lakebed sediment, for example.
That’s why tracking the TRI can be helpful to the public.
“We ought to be turning over every rock we can to find out what we can do to reduce the exposure of our families to these kinds of environmental toxins,” Moench said.
The toxins in your backyard
While mining operations and big smokestacks like Kennecott’s get a lot of attention, there are TRI reporting industries throughout Utah, mostly concentrated on the Wasatch Front.
Western Zirconium reported around 629,000 pounds of on and off-site toxic releases. Compass Minerals reported 31,559 pounds of on and off-site releases.
There are 17 TRI facilities in the county that, in 2016, reported a total of 732,000 pounds of toxic releases. Weber County’s TRI site aren’t reporting many releases of heavy metals that cause concern at Kennecott.
Instead, the bulk of the county’s releases are from nitrate compounds (400,000 pounds) and ammonia (224,000 pounds). Those chemicals play a big role in forming particulate pollution which causes all kinds of breathing problems.
For Utahns concerned about the toxins that might be coming from sites nearby, Urban has a couple recommendations.
First, members of the public can request records for the facilities, including permit records and inspection reports. The Division of Air Quality, for example, requires models for how smokestack emissions move through the atmosphere. The DEQ also tracks spills or dangerous releases, their cleanup and their consequences.
The TRI, Urban said, can only tell you so much.
“There’s a lot of caveats with the TRI release report, which gets back to the question — Is it useful or not so useful to public?” he said. “It really depends on the type of information you’re trying to obtain.”
His second piece of advice is to research a property — and what’s nearby — before moving in.
“When a facility already exists, like Stericycle comes to mind or the refinieres in North Salt Lake, they were there a long time before the suburbs encroached on them,” he said. “When (people) move right next to it, things happen ... unfortunately there are occasionally incidents and people are impacted. I think it boils down to taking reasonable steps before you buy a property.”