Overall 15% drop in chemical waste due to cuts by biggest polluters

Companies in the US and Canada have achieved a continued decline in chemical pollution - but only at the plants emitting the largest amounts of toxic waste.

A new report from the Montreal-based Commission for Environmental Cooperation finds an overall 15 per cent reduction in the total releases of toxic chemicals by facilities in those two countries between 1998 and 2004.

But the drop was largely due to the big polluters cutting waste - facilities emitting more than 1,000 tonnes of pollutants recorded a 28 per cent drop in onsite releases in the US and 33 per cent in Canada.

Smaller polluters in the survey were actually releasing more waste - a staggering rise of 191 per cent in the US and 544 per cent in Canada.

’Large emitters are associated with large facilities that might have the money and staff to implement pollution prevention measures, whereas smaller facilities may not have those resources,’ Orlando Cabrera, a CEC programme manager, told Chemistry World.

In addition, environmental regulations tend to place more burden and accountability on the larger facilities with more pollution. For example, high levels of emissions from one site may trigger the Clean Air Act in the US.

Chemical companies on both sides of the size spectrum take issue with the CEC’s findings. US chemical manufacturer BioLab, one of the smallest polluters, said its readings were higher in 2004 because of a fire at its plant and not due to an increase in overall emissions. One of the largest emissions reporters - Dow Chemical - said its total global emissions have fallen over 40 per cent since 1998, but its 170 smallest sites and top 13 largest facilities reported reductions of 50 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively.

’The difference may have to do with the business strategies of the companies,’ said Dow official Dana Mathes. ’A lot of our growth has happened when we have added new capacity, which we have tended to do more at these big sites.’

Overall, 3 million tonnes of chemicals were released or transferred in the US and Canada in 2004. Although the CEC report does not make policy recommendations or address compliance, the group says a large number of small and medium-size industrial facilities need to do a better job in reducing their waste and emissions.

Rebecca Trager is US correspondent for Research Day USA