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Media Release

New CEC Report Examines Where 5 Billion Kilograms of Industrial Pollutants Go Every Year in North America

Montreal, 2 May 2023 — Today, the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) released a new report compiling and analyzing data reported by approximately 24,000 industrial facilities in Canada, Mexico and the United States to their respective national pollutant release and transfer registers.

The report reveals important gaps in the reporting and tracking of transfers to disposal across the region due to differing reporting requirements, shared responsibilities across agencies and jurisdictions, and the lack of information about the fate of waste pollutants when they are transferred to third parties (such as waste management service providers) or across national borders. The report also provides insights about the challenges facing facilities relative to implementing pollution prevention and sustainable production practices and offers examples of alternatives to the generation and disposal of industrial waste.

Since 1995, the CEC has worked with governments, industry, civil society and academia through the North American Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR) Initiative to promote and enhance access to comparable and complete PRTR data for the region to support decisions about pollution prevention and sustainability. In parallel with the release of the 16th edition of Taking Stock, the CEC has launched the enhanced Taking Stock Online web portal featuring a searchable database and tools that allow researchers, decision-makers and the general public to explore the latest integrated North American PRTR data.

“In the spirit of the public’s right-to-know, Taking Stock presents and analyzes data on industrial pollutant releases and transfers to inform decisions about preventing pollution and advancing environmental justice by reducing the risk of exposure to contaminants of vulnerable communities,” said Jorge Daniel Taillant, CEC Executive Director. “This report sheds light on important data gaps across North America that stem from differing national reporting requirements and from the transfer of responsibility for waste pollutants after they leave the source facility. These gaps in information about the quantities and management of substances can, for example, constrain our ability to respond to extreme events and disasters, such as floods, that risk re-mobilizing pollutants from disposal sites and contaminated soils. In the context of climate change, we must re-evaluate the ‘business as usual’ approach to the use of pollutants and the generation of hazardous waste.”

Key findings of the report:

  • Almost 24,000 industrial facilities across North America reported more than 5 billion kilograms (kg) in pollutant releases and transfers each year. The distribution among release and transfer types is roughly as follows (average of 5 years):
    Release or Transfer Category % of total
    On-Site Air Emissions 7.00
    On-Site Surface Water Discharges 4.00
    On-Site Underground Injection 5.00
    On-Site Disposal or Land Releases 41.00
    Off-site Transfers to Recycling 26.00
    Off-site Transfers to Treatment, sewage, energy recovery 10.00
    Off-site Transfers to Disposal 6.00
  • Together, about fifteen industry sectors accounted for 80% of the reported annual totals – including metal ore mining, iron and steel mills/ferroalloy manufacturing, basic chemicals manufacturing, oil and gas extraction, and waste management. Similarly, of the more than 500 pollutants reported, approximately 20 accounted for 88% of annual releases and transfers. Just five of them—zinc, manganese, lead, and copper compounds, along with nitric acid/nitrate compounds—together accounted for about 45% of the total.
  • The report’s special analysis of off-site transfers to disposal reveals that approximately 11,000 facilities, many of them in these same top sectors, reported transferring about 335 million kg of their waste pollutants to disposal (representing 6% of total annual releases and transfers). The top pollutants – metal compounds such as zinc, manganese, lead and barium, along with hydrogen sulfide – accounted for about 55% of the total.
  • The report provides examples of the health and environmental issues associated with common industrial disposal practices such as landfills or surface impoundments, underground injection, land application, and “other” disposal. It also reveals important gaps in the data that result from differences among PRTR reporting requirements across the region, as well as the shared responsibility for the reporting and management of hazardous waste. These gaps impede our ability to track pollutant transfers from their source to their ultimate disposition, particularly when they involve third-party contractors or when waste pollutants cross national borders.
  • A key objective of the CEC’s North American PRTR Initiative is to support pollution prevention and sustainability within industry. This edition of Taking Stock provides information and examples of alternatives to the generation and disposal of industrial waste and shows how PRTRs can serve as important tools to support the transition from a linear to a circular economy, for instance, by calling for detailed reporting of facilities’ pollution prevention efforts, needs and challenges that can yield insights for industry and governments.

To learn more about the pollutant releases and transfers reported by North American facilities, visit the CEC’s Taking Stock Online website and searchable database.

About the North American Pollutant Release and Transfer Register Initiative

The CEC’s North American Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (NAPRTR) Initiative promotes public access to data and information reported by industrial facilities in North America to improve understanding of the sources and management of pollutants of concern across the region and support decisions relative to pollution prevention and sustainability.

Since 1996, the NAPRTR Initiative has been a cornerstone of the CEC’s work on pollutants and environmental health. Efforts are focused on adding value to national PRTR data through their integration, analysis and dissemination via the Taking Stock report series and the Taking Stock Online website featuring a searchable database and tools. Data are reported by industrial facilities to the three national PRTRs in North America: Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory; Mexico’s Registro de Emisiones y Transferencia de Contaminantes; and the United States’ Toxics Release Inventory.

Taking Stock

Flagship Commission for Environmental Cooperation report shows that industrial facilities in Canada, Mexico and the United States together reported releases and transfers of approximately 5 billion kilograms of pollutants each year, including about 335 million kg transferred off site for disposal. The special analysis in this year’s report was developed in response to concerns about some of these waste disposal practices, such as landfills and application to land or soils, that can release contaminants into the environment and result in long-term (or legacy) contamination and community public health impacts, even across national borders.

About the CEC

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) was established in 1994 by the governments of Canada, Mexico and the United States through the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation, a parallel environmental agreement to NAFTA. As of 2020, the CEC is recognized and maintained by the Environmental Cooperation Agreement, in parallel with the new Free Trade Agreement of North America. The CEC brings together a wide range of stakeholders, including the general public, Indigenous people, youth, nongovernmental organizations, academia, and the business sector, to seek solutions to protect North America’s shared environment while supporting sustainable development for the benefit of present and future generations

The CEC is governed and funded equally by the Government of Canada through Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Government of the United States of Mexico through the Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, and the Government of the United States of America through the Environmental Protection Agency.

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