Taking Stock Volume 16


Key Findings

North American industrial facilities reported 5,294,180,684 kilograms (kg) in total releases and transfers in 2018, an increase of about 3% from 2014. US facilities, which greatly outnumbered those in the other two countries, accounted for about 63% of the total amount reported each year, with Canadian facilities accounting for about 36% of the total. While Mexico represented less than 1% of the North American total, amounts reported by facilities in this country increased by almost 74% between 2014 and 2018, in large part due to a change in RETC reporting requirements in 2014 that saw the list of substances expand to 200 pollutants. As a result, the number of reporting facilities in Mexico increased by 25%, with 26 new substances reported during this period.

Together, two categories, on-site disposal or releases to land and off-site transfers to recycling, accounted for approximately two-thirds of total releases and transfers reported in the region between 2014 and 2018, while releases to air and water accounted for approximately 7% and 4%, respectively. Together, fifteen industry sectors accounted for approximately 80% of the regional total, with the metal ore mining sector alone making up about one-third. Other top industries[1] included the iron and steel mills/ferroalloy manufacturing, basic chemicals manufacturing, oil and gas extraction, and waste management sectors.

Of the 538 pollutants (or pollutant groups) reported overall by North American facilities during this period, only 20 accounted for approximately 88% of total releases and transfers each year. Five of them—zinc, manganese, lead, and copper compounds, along with nitric acid/nitrate compounds—together accounted for about 45% of the annual totals. Some of these pollutants were transferred across national borders, with at least 75% of the approximately 200 million kg each year consisting of transfers of sulfuric acid from Canadian petroleum and coal products manufacturing facilities to the United States for recycling.

The feature analysis of transfers to disposal shows that from 2014 through 2018, North American facilities transferred approximately 335 million kg of pollutants off-site for disposal each year, accounting for about 6% of total annual releases and transfers. In Mexico, however, transfers to disposal represented a larger proportion of the total, accounting for 12% in 2014 and increasing to 34% in 2018. The total number of reporting facilities across the region remained fairly constant during this period, at about 11,000.

The Taking Stock “off-site transfers to disposal” category covers a wide variety of practices employed by North American industrial facilities and represents the best attempt to harmonize the reporting fields, terminology, and definitions of three different PRTR systems so as to obtain the most comparable picture of transfers to disposal for the region. However, readers are reminded that the terminology used in this report is unique to Taking Stock and that differences among the three countries’ PRTRs have impacts on our understanding of the data.

Of the six sub-categories of transfers to disposal, transfers to landfills or surface impoundments accounted for about 155 million kg, or 46%, of the total in 2018 (a decrease of about 15% from 2014). Transfers to underground injection accounted for 17-20% of the annual totals, followed by transfers to stabilization or treatment prior to disposal (which increased by 30% over this period). Transfers to “other disposal (unknown)” ranked fourth, with between 24 million kg and almost 35 million kg each year. Transfers to land application (which increased by more than 40% during this period) and transfers to storage prior to disposal ranked 5th and 6th, respectively.

Approximately 10 industry sectors, including metal ore mining, iron and steel mills/ferroalloy manufacturing, basic chemical manufacturing, oil and gas extraction, and waste management, accounted for at least two-thirds of transfers to disposal each year. Similarly, 10 pollutants (or pollutant groups), including zinc, manganese, lead, and copper (and their compounds) and nitric acid/nitrate compounds, accounted for about two-thirds of the annual totals.

This analysis provides recent examples of the risks associated with the disposal practices of North American industrial facilities, and highlights both the importance and difficulty of tracking pollutants from their point of origin to their ultimate disposition. Challenges relate to key differences among the three programs in disposal terminology and definitions, as well as gaps in the details provided by facilities, particularly relative to the “other disposal” category and cross-border transfers of pollutants. In some cases, the shared responsibility for the implementation of regulations and the monitoring of certain types of wastes indicates a need for enhanced coordination among agencies and more complete information about the management of pollutants, including the facilities that receive them.

The discussion of alternatives to the generation and disposal of industrial waste provides examples of initiatives undertaken by companies in North America and across the globe. It shows that PRTRs can serve as important tools to support sustainable production and minimize the generation of waste—for instance, by calling for a greater level of detail about the pollution prevention efforts of PRTR reporting facilities. This information can yield insights that can be used by industry and governments to understand the needs and challenges facing facilities across the region.

However, this report also highlights the need to address gaps in the data that impact our ability to track industrial pollutants across the region. Reasons for these gaps include differences among national PRTR reporting requirements for certain disposal practices, and for some of the top sectors and the pollutants associated with them (for example, oil and gas extraction, sewage treatment plants; zinc, barium, and manganese compounds); as well as data quality issues such as the reporting of erroneous industry sector codes. Through ongoing collaboration with the three PRTR programs, the CEC is working to address these issues and enhance the access to and understanding of PRTR data and information across the region.

[1] The use of the term “top” in this report refers to those facilities, sectors, or pollutants with the highest amounts, as reported to the PRTRs. Readers are reminded that North American PRTR data do not cover all facilities, sectors, and pollutants in the region.


Commission for Environmental Cooperation

For more information, please contact: info@cec.org