Archive for Sunday, September 1, 1996

S POLLUTING THE AIR

September 1, 1996

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Federal records reveal the county's big polluters -- but not all of them.

Factories in Douglas County released more than 1.4 million pounds of pollutants into the air last year, and more than 350,000 pounds into rivers or streams.

While the water releases, all by Farmland Industries in Lawrence, were up slightly from 1994, air pollution was down 34 percent, according to federal records reviewed by the Journal-World.

Government regulators, watchdog groups and industry insiders say that's a tribute not only to improved practices at Farmland, also a major air polluter, but to a 10-year-old law that requires factories to report their air and water emissions.

The government toxic release inventory reports include just a portion of the overall air and water pollution emitted in the county.

Though flawed and incomplete, the reports still offer the public its clearest understanding of what's clouding the county's skies and rivers.

"The good thing about the toxic release inventory data is that it's the best we have," said Bill Craven, a lawyer and lobbyist for the Kansas Sierra Club and the Kansas Natural Resource Council. "We view it as a good thing because it enables community groups to know what's coming into their communities, and it provides an incentive for businesses to undertake pollution prevention activities.

"There's nothing like a little sunshine to focus attention on the issue."

Incomplete picture

Since 1986, the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act has required large manufacturers to report their releases of more than 500 chemicals into the environment. The annual toxic release inventory reports are open to the public.

In Douglas County, nine factories were required to file the reports in 1995, although one, Heinz Pet Products in Lawrence, had no releases to report.

Of the eight plants that did report releases, all but one -- M-Pact's medical device factory in Eudora -- were in Lawrence or close to it.

The biggest of the county's polluters, in terms of reported emissions, is the Farmland Industries nitrogen fertilizer plant just east of Lawrence along Kansas Highway 10. The plant was the state's third-biggest air polluter, based on toxic release inventory reports in 1994. Updated rankings aren't yet available.

The plant -- an industrial landmark recognizable by its plumes of sometimes yellow-tinted steam -- released 891,000 pounds of ammonia into the air in 1995, down from 1.5 million pounds in 1994, according to the government reports. Last year the plant also released 26,500 pounds of methanol, down 91 percent from 307,000 pounds in 1994.

FMC Corp.'s methanol releases were up last year, from about 84,000 pounds in 1994 to 210,000 pounds in 1995, according to the company's report to the government.

The other plants reporting air emissions were operated by Allied Signal, Astor Universal, BOC Gases, Davol and Lawrence Technology.

However, the reports don't include all sources of pollution in the county.

"It is an indication of a contribution to the pollutants in the air, but it is by no means the total," said John Flint, section chief for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's right-to-know program. "We're just looking at manufacturing facilities, and there's all kinds of other facilities that emit."

For instance, KPL operates a 539-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Lawrence. But power plants aren't required to make toxic release inventory reports.

Critics say the toxic release inventory law is flawed in other ways:

  • It requires reporting of releases of more than 500 chemicals, but not of thousands of others used commercially.
  • The data are self-reported by factories, sometimes based on estimates rather than measurements of releases.
  • The reports don't include any information about farm runoff into streams and rivers or automobile emissions, a major source of air pollution in urban areas.
  • The reports say nothing about whether the releases are dangerous or benign, or when the releases occur. For instance, the 891,250 pounds of ammonia released into the air by Farmland last year might not have been a major health hazard if released slowly. Ammonia is a common ingredient in household products. But exposure to large concentrations of the chemical, released quickly, can be deadly. And exposure to smaller amounts of other more toxic substances could be more dangerous.

"Until you are familiar with what's being shown and what isn't being shown, the data can be misleading," said Craven of the Sierra Club.

Public access

A proposed change to the federal law would require coal and gas power plants, mines, hazardous waste treatment facilities and chemical and petroleum wholesalers to file the same reports. Currently the law applies only to manufacturing facilities with more than 10 employees.

That doesn't mean there isn't anyone keeping track of emissions from KPL's power plant. It's one of 30 businesses in Douglas County that have state permits to make air emissions of certain pollutants.

But records about those emissions, collected by KDHE, aren't readily available to the public like the information in the toxic inventory reports, which are available on the Internet (http://www.epa.gov/enviro/html/tris/tris_query.html).

State and federal officials argue that easy access to the information has prompted companies to clean up their acts, and their images.

Still, environmental groups had to fight off attempts in the 104th Congress to eliminate or gut the toxic release reporting.

Statewide, air pollution included in the reports declined 35 percent between 1993 and 1994, from 40 million pounds to 26 million pounds. Farmland claims it has reduced emissions by 69 percent since 1990.

"I think everyone in the business, or at least those in Douglas County that we worked together with, recognized the potential of reducing emissions from an environmental standpoint," said Dick Lind, Farmland's plant manager.

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