June 7, 2004

Electric power plants are leading source of air emissions in North America, says CEC

Electric power plants are North America's leading source of air pollution, accounting for almost half of all industrial air emissions in 2001, says Taking Stock 2001, the latest annual report on chemical pollution from industrial facilities released last week by the Commission for Environmental Co-operation (CEC).

The report compares data on 204 chemicals common to Canada's National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) and the U.S. Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), submitted by 21,254 industrial facilities in the two countries. (Data from Mexico are not yet incorporated into the report, as its mandatory, publicly accessible reporting system is still under development.) Its analysis shows that 1.4 million tonnes of chemicals were released into the environment in North America in 2001. Another 1.5 million tonnes were transferred to recycling, energy recovery and treatment facilities.

The findings further indicate that 46 of the top 50 air polluters in North America were power plants. The power generation sector accounted for 341,400, or approximately 45% of the 755,500 tonnes of on-site air releases in 2001, with hydrochloric and sulfuric acids being the chemicals most commonly released from the burning of coal and oil. Power plants were also the source of 64% (43,384 kg) of all mercury air emissions, mainly from coal combustion. Other leading sectors for on-site air emissions included chemical manufacturers, with 83,900 tonnes; paper products, with 85,500 tonnes; and rubber and plastics products, with 41,900 tonnes.

Industrial facilities in North America released and transferred more than 2.95 million tonnes of matched chemicals, with almost half of this total (1.44 million tonnes) released on- and off-site. About 30% (approximately 869,000 tonnes) of the total reported amounts were substances sent off-site for recycling. Transfers for further management, including energy recovery, treatment and sewage, made up about 20% (approximately 646,000 tonnes).

NPRI facilities reported 9% of the total North American releases and transfers, i.e. 277,100 tonnes, with TRI facilities reporting the remaining 98%, i.e. 2.68 million tonnes. In both case, on-site releases made up about 40% of the total, although NPRI air releases constituted 32% of the on-site total, compared 25% for TRI facilities.

On the other hand, notes the report, on-site surface water discharges and land releases were proportionally higher for TRI facilities than NPRI facilities. Another interesting comparison was in off-site transfers to recycling, which made up 41% of the NPRI total, compared to 28% of TRI facilities. As well, other off-site transfers for further management made up 23% of the TRI total, compared to 9% of the NPRI total.

Along with electric utilities, chemical manufacturing, primary metals, hazardous waste management/solvent recovery, and fabricated metals facilities accounted for almost three-quarters of North American total releases and transfers in 2001. Looking at releases alone, those from electric utilities made up nearly 30% of total releases for North America, followed by primary metals (17%), chemicals (16%) and others (23%); the paper and hazardous waste/solvent recovery sectors contributed 8% and 7%, respectively.

For NPRI reporting facilities, four sectors made up over two-thirds of total releases: paper (20%), electric utilities (18%), primary metals (15%) and chemicals (14%). Releases from three TRI reporting sectors made up just under two-thirds of the total: electric utilities (30%), primary metals (18%) and chemicals (17%).

Of the 755,500 tonnes of on-site air releases, NPRI facilities accounted for 87,700 tonnes, with fugitive or other air releases making up 13% of this amount. TRI air releases were 677,800 tonnes, with 12% as fugitive air releases.

By jurisdiction, Ontario came in third in terms of air releases; its total of 45,500 tonnes in 2001 followed North Carolina (50,100 tonnes) and Ohio (45,900 tonnes). Ontario ranked fourth for total releases and transfers, with 1,000 facilities reporting just under 171,900 tonnes; Texas had the highest total releases, followed by Ohio and Michigan. These jurisdictions, along with Pennsylvania and Indiana, were responsible for almost 40% of all North American releases and transfers of chemicals and more than one-third of all releases on- and off-site. Of the six jurisdictions, Ontario had the largest amount of transfers to recycling.

In North America, notes the report, a relatively small number of facilities account for a large proportion of releases. The 15 facilities with the largest total (on- and off-site) releases made up 11% of the total reported in 2001. The sole Canadian facility in this group was Ontario Power Generation's Nanticoke Generating Station, whose 7.5 million kg of total on-site releases constituted 8% of the total. The coal-fired plant was also responsible for the second largest on-site air releases of mercury (226 kg) by a Canadian electrical facility, following Alberta's TransAlta Corporation's Sundance Thermal Generating Plant at 270 kg.

Overall in North America, total releases and transfers of chemicals decreased by 10%, while on-site air releases decreased by 18% from 1998 to 2001. During the same period as well, on-site surface water discharges declined by 12%, on-site land releases declined by 26% and on-site underground injection decreased by 17%.

However, air releases, including smokestack emissions, continued to account for almost two-thirds of the chemicals released by companies on-site. For electric power plants, the decrease in toxic air releases was half the rate of other sectors over the same time period.

"We're still pumping more chemicals into the air than all other methods of release combined. We've shown that it's possible to reduce pollution, but cleaner air requires industry, government and the public to work together for cleaner fuels, conservation and more renewable energy," said CEC executive director William Kennedy.

Taking Stock 2001 is the eighth report of the series to compare industrial pollution sources in North America. For those with questions about a particular facility, industrial sector or jurisdiction, the Taking Stock Web site, www.cec.org/takingstock, allows users to customize reports by chemical, facility, sector or geographic region.

More information is available from Spencer Tripp at the CEC, 514/350-4331.

Table of Contents  | Top of Page

  Ecolog Network