Nearly lost amid the smoky haze and media hubbub swirling around Montana’s worst fire season in more than 50 years was a report released last week without herald or fanfare, whose findings will nonetheless dwarf the environmental impact of even the nation’s largest and most destructive wildfires.
In 1998, electric power plants in Montana and throughout the nation were required for the first time to begin reporting their toxic air emissions to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That data, finally released by the EPA in May, proved to be anything but good news. In short, electric power plants, long suspected of posing considerable health risks to the public, instantly became known as the nation’s largest toxic air polluters.
The numbers are indeed astonishing. According to the new report, “Toxic Power,” issued by the National Environmental Trust (NET) and Clean the Air: The National Campaign Against Dirty Power, Montana electric utilities in 1998 spewed 950,655 pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, making them the state’s second largest air polluters behind only the paper industry, and the largest total emitters of air, water and land pollution. Nationwide, electric utilities released more than 1 billion pounds of toxic pollution in 1998, more than the entire chemical, paper, plastics and refining industries combined.
“According to their own records, electric utilities are by far the largest air polluters in America, and unregulated power plants are the worst of the worst,” says Dr. Tom Natan, research director for the National Environmental Trust and author of the report.
For years, utility companies had used their political and economic clout to resist inclusion of their coal- and oil-burning plants on the so-called Toxic Release Inventory, or TRI, the nation’s premier database of information on what industries are releasing into our water, air and land. In contrast, most other industries have been reporting their toxic releases since 1987. That all changed in 1998, when the industry was first required to report the nearly 784 million tons of chemicals they dump into the environment, second only behind the metals mining industry for total toxic releases.
The report, based almost entirely on the industry’s own numbers, also found that in 1987:
• Nationwide, coal- and oil-fired power plants released nearly 9 million pounds of toxic metals and metal compounds into the air, many of which are known or suspected carcinogens and neurotoxins. According to the report, power plants are not required to have controls in place for limiting the release of toxic metals, even though they are the among the largest sources of toxic metal pollution in air and landfills.
• About one-half of the toxic pollution from these power plants is contained in the waste left over from oil and coal combustion. These wastes are currently disposed of at on-site and off-site landfills that are not necessarily designed for the handling of hazardous materials, and may be allowing toxic wastes to contaminate the soil and groundwater.
• The vast majority of the nation’s 613 oil- and coal-fired power plants are more than 30 years old, and burn very inefficiently, releasing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides and other greenhouse gases into the environment, but are not regulated like other industries. In fact, an exemption under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act allows the utility industry to dispose of more than 100 million tons of toxic combustion waste annually with no restrictions.
“We can now look at the state of Montana and show you the source of toxins, and, from our perspective ask, can we do a better job?” says CB Pearson, Montana field representative for NET in Missoula. “The ongoing battle is to get these pollutants out of the air.”
Pearson admits that Montana power plants, which ranked only 42nd in the nation for total releases, fare better than many other plants in the nation, due to the fact that they are newer facilities, fewer in number and burn cleaner coal than elsewhere in the nation. That said, he says Montanans should use their influence with Sen. Max Baucus, who serves on the Senate Natural Resources Committee, to help close many of the loopholes in the Clean Air Act that allow many older plants to release more pollutants than other industries. Currently, the EPA is considering whether to regulate toxic air pollution from electric energy generation, with a decision expected by December.