Industrial toxin levels decreasing in Maine

Posted Dec. 14, 2008, at 8:47 p.m.

Emissions of potentially toxic chemicals from industrial facilities in Maine have trended downward in recent years, according to federal data.

In 2006, the last year for which figures were available, facilities in Maine reported discharging an estimated 8.5 million pounds of chemicals tracked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That is down from 9.2 million pounds in 2005 and slightly less than the five-year average of 8.9 million pounds.

Known as the Toxics Release Inventory, the federal database enables the public to see exactly which of a list of nearly 650 chemicals are being released into the air, the water or onto the ground by facilities in their towns.

The program was launched in the mid-1980s after thousands of people died when a cloud of poisonous gases from a Union Carbide chemical factory descended on the town of Bhopal, India, during the night.

Since public disclosure of TRI data began about a decade ago, the volume of toxic materials being released into the environment has dropped by half. But some critics contend the database is flawed because it relies on factories to self-report estimated releases and, in recent years, was changed to exempt facilities that emit less than 2,000 pounds annually.

USA Today used the TRI data as well as information from the EPA and other sources to put together a report based on computer modeling that depicts schools located within potential chemical “hot spots.” Several Maine schools, from far northern Aroostook County to Kittery, fared poorly in the report.

Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection used the TRI data until developing its own chemical reporting program several years ago. Jim Brooks, who heads the DEP’s Bureau of Air Quality, said the state’s system includes smaller facilities exempt under the TRI and requires facilities to be more specific about the chemicals they emit or discharge.

“We didn’t feel that the [EPA] inventory had enough resolution to provide us with any integrity to help us make policy decisions,” Brooks said. “In my bureau, we don’t use the TRI any more. We use ours.”

But the TRI, which is searchable online, remains useful for the public, town officials hoping to hold facilities more accountable, and even first responders.

In 2006, the facilities in Maine that discharged the most chemicals tracked under TRI were McCain Foods in Easton at 2.3 million pounds; Verso Paper in Jay at 1.9 million pounds; S.D. Warren Co. in Skowhegan at 1.5 million pounds; and Domtar Maine in Baileyville at 1.1 million pounds.

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