Report: Polluters dumped ~200 million lbs. of toxics into waterways

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Emily Kowalski

Environment Illinois Research & Policy Center Field Organizer
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Doug O'Malley

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Luke Metzger

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Nicole Walter

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National
John Rumpler

Senior Director, Clean Water for America Campaign and Senior Attorney, Environment America Research & Policy Center

BOSTON – Polluters in just 10 states account for more than half of the 193.6 million pounds of toxic substances discharged into U.S. waterways in 2020, according to a new report released Wednesday by Environment America Research & Policy Center and U.S. PIRG Education Fund. As documented in Wasting Our Waterways: Toxic Pollution and the Unfulfilled Promise of the Clean Water Act, this toxic pollution flowed into roughly one in every three local watersheds across the United States and included many chemicals linked to cancer and other serious health risks.
 
“America’s waterways should be clean – for swimming, fishing, providing drinking water and supporting wildlife,” said John Rumpler, senior director of Environment America Research & Policy Center’s clean water program and a co-author of the report. “But all too often, polluters are allowed to use our rivers as open sewers. As the Clean Water Act turns 50, it’s time to turn the tide on this toxic pollution.” 
 
The groups’ report, which recommends several steps to reduce toxic pollution of our waterways, is based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). Polluters self-report their discharge of toxics to surface waters to the TRI. Using 2020 data, the study found that:

  • Polluters in 10 states—Texas, Indiana, Virginia, Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina, Mississippi, Ohio, Kentucky, and Illinois—accounted for more than half of the toxic substances (by weight) spewed into our waterways. (The report also shows the states where polluters’ releases rank highest for toxicity.)
  • Facilities dumped more than 1 million pounds of cancer-causing chemicals – such as arsenic, chromium, and benzene – into America’s waterways. Texas’ Austin-Oyster watershed received the largest volume of carcinogens.
  • Nitrates accounted for more than 90% of toxic releases to waterways by weight. Nitrates are linked to health risks and also contribute to dead zones and toxic algal outbreaks. Slaughterhouses and meat processing plants are significant sources of nitrate pollution.
  • Well-known companies own or operate many of the facilities with the most significant toxic releases in each state. (See charts in Appendix B of the report.)
  • When measured by toxicity, the top polluting facilities included mining and metals manufacturers, chemical plants, and power plants.

Even more toxic pollution flows into American waterways, as TRI reporting does not include runoff pollution, oil and gas extraction, or most types of “forever chemicals” (otherwise known as PFAS).

“The data on toxic dumping into our waterways is shocking, but it is only the tip of the iceberg,” says Tony Dutzik, Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst with Frontier Group and a co-author of the report. “Too often, releases of toxic chemicals — even highly dangerous substances like PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ — go unreported to the public. It’s time for that to change.”

Advocates and scientists are concerned about the cumulative effects of toxic substances on human health and the environment.

“A half-century after the Clean Water Act took effect, it’s outrageous that our children aren’t guaranteed a toxic-free future,” said Matt Casale, director of U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s environment campaigns and a co-author of the report. “Polluters too often recklessly dispose of chemicals linked to cancer, developmental harm to children, and reproductive damage. It’s time to stop this toxic dumping.”
 
A few of the report’s recommendations are already gaining traction. For example, the EPA is considering updated pollution controls for slaughterhouses, and several states have restricted the use of PFAS and other chemicals. However, with the U.S. Supreme Court slated to hear a case on the scope of the Clean Water Act on October 3, advocates are concerned that many waterways could lose their federal protections from pollution.

“We should be doing more to protect our rivers and streams, not sliding backward,” said Rumpler. “Fifty years on, the promise of the Clean Water Act is at stake.”

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