Breathe easy: Pollution is down - and still measured

Breathe easy: Pollution is down - and still measured

March 5th, 2014 in Opinion Times

Downtown Chattanooga was blanketed by a thick haze from two prescribed burns from nearby counties on Friday, Feb. 28, 2014.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Hamilton County has come a long way in cleaning up its dirty manufacturing past and the brown haze pollution that went with it.

But we still have to be vigilant about pollution. A controlled forest fire burn last week reminded us of our past when the bowl that is Chattanooga, hemmed by ridges and mountains, filled with the white haze of smoke. Had the smoke been brown and tainted with the smell of metal and chemicals, we might have thought we'd been transported back five decades.

Thankfully, manufacturing smog -- including that from coal-burning power plants -- is largely a memory for us.

But as a story by Times Free Press staffer Louie Brogdon indicated Sunday, a federal environmental report shows we still need to keep close tabs on our manufacturing future -- a future we hope to have abundantly.

Based on 10 years of data, the county lags behind the nation, region and state in reducing its toxic emissions footprint from manufacturing -- even though the biggest local contributor is hailed as one of the cleanest automobile plants in the world. Volkswagen emits about half of the pollution tallied locally.

From 2002 to 2012, the United States reduced toxic emission releases by 1.1 billion pounds -- from 4.7 billion pounds to 3.6 billion. And Tennessee, now the 12th-biggest polluter out of the 56 states and territories, has reduced its toxic output almost by half, from 156 million pounds to 79 million pounds. Tennessee used to be the second most polluting state, by the way.

But manufacturers in Hamilton County put 811,994 pounds of toxic material into the environment through the air, water or landfills in 2012 -- almost the same amount emitted here a decade ago. Though the number is large, it's a wisp of smoke compared to the 5.3 million pounds of toxics released here in 1992, or the 10 million pounds released in 1988.

The numbers come from the Environmental Protection Agency's annual Toxic Release Inventory. Called TRI for short, the inventory is a database EPA compiles using manufacturer-supplied information about releases. The manufacturers are allowed to estimate. The chemicals and compounds on the list are there because science has shown them to be carcinogenic, caustic or catalysts for birth defects or neurological damage.

It's important to explain that these toxic emissions are not the same things measured regularly by the Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau. With its daily air report, the bureau is measuring six "criteria" pollutants: carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, particulate, and lead. Of those, only lead is considered a "toxic" pollutant under the TRI. There generally are not "standards" for the release of toxic chemicals, and those releases are legal under permits provided to manufacturers by the bureau, which is a regulatory enforcement arm of the EPA.

But the value of the database is through its openness as part of the nation's Right to Know law, passed in 1986 after a massive manufacturing chemical release at a U.S. Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people in a matter of minutes. The database, maintained online at EPA's website, allows anyone in any neighborhood to look at what chemicals are released at facilities near them. Just as it's good to know what your evacuation route is from the 10-mile zone around Sequoyah Nuclear Plant, it's also good to know if a chlorine plant or acid-packaging facility is nearby.

Periodically, this right-to-know protection comes under attack, as you can well imagine. In 2006, EPA was pressured to cut the reports back to every other year. The proposed change didn't happen.

Please help guard it. The database can show our progress toward sustainability, just as it can show us potential danger.