The amount of potentially toxic compounds released by industrial facilities in Maine increased by 13 percent between 2009 and 2010, a change that several observers said could reflect a rebound in the state’s pulp and paper mills.
The 84 facilities tracked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported releasing 9.6 million pounds of chemicals in 2010, up 1.1 million pounds from the previous year. Maine facilities accounted for nearly half of the 20.6 million pounds of chemicals released in New England in 2010.
The figures are compiled in the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, a database that enables the public to see which chemicals are being released into the air, into the water or onto the ground by facilities in their towns. Launched in the mid-1980s after several major industrial accidents, the inventory also is used by emergency management agencies preparing for incidents as well as public health professionals analyzing potential trends.
Pulp and paper mills were the largest emitters once again in 2010, accounting for nine of the top 10 sources of the chemicals tracked by the Toxic Release Inventory. Those chemicals include methanol, zinc and magnesium compounds, ammonia and hydrochloric acid.
The McCain’s Foods plant in Easton topped the list, however, releasing nearly 2.3 million pounds of nitrate compounds.
The inventory reports from the past five years show that chemical releases and emissions in Maine vary from year to year. Emissions jumped from 10.6 million pounds in 2006 to 11.3 million pounds in 2007 but then fell back to 10.5 million pounds by 2008. At 8.4 million pounds, the 2009 figures were the lowest of the period.
Opinions varied Thursday about why Maine saw such a large jump in releases in 2010 when the total for all of New England dropped by nearly 290,000 pounds.
Nationwide, chemical releases rose 16 percent largely because of changes in the metal mining sector, according to the EPA.
Robert Gardner, who handles Toxic Release Inventory information as the technological hazards coordinator at the Maine Emergency Management Agency, had yet to study the data but said the increase may be due to the strengthening economy.
“Obviously, if the economy begins to pick up, facilities are going to use more chemicals in their processes and that will result in an increase in releases,” Gardner said. Another EPA database that tracks chemicals stored at facilities showed that the number of entities in Maine that reported storing chemicals increased by 195 in the past year, he said.
John Williams, president of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, said his industry was hard-hit by the economy in 2008 and 2009, as evidenced by the fact that mills recorded the first drop in production in years. Several mills shut down machines at the peak of the recession in 2009, but by 2010 production was back up.
“If you produce more you’re going to have more emissions,” Williams said.
But Melanie Loyzim, director of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Air Quality, said that while she cannot speak for all pollution releases, she does not believe air pollution emissions increased during the period.
As an example, Loyzim said that emissions of sulfur dioxide — a byproduct of burning oil — fell 50 percent as more industrial users switched to cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas.
Loyzim said DEP staff in the past had found enough inconsistencies within the EPA’s emissions data that the department now compiles its own, more detailed pollution reports from information submitted by the regulated facilities. She also said the year-to-year fluctuations caused by a myriad of factors make it difficult to detect trends in pollution data.
Regardless of the reasons for the change, Lisa Pohlmann with the Natural Resources Council of Maine said she found it troubling that pollution levels increased in the state by more than 1 million pounds between 2009 and 2010 while emissions elsewhere in New England fell.
Pohlmann, who is the council’s executive director, said the EPA’s annual data help keep the public informed and put pressure on industries to reduce emissions.
“We always hope this information will be used by Maine industries to consider their processes to see if there are ways to reduce these toxic chemicals,” she said.