RICHMOND, Va — A 14-year-old federal program that publicizes the levels of toxic chemicals released by factories has helped cut discharges of the potentially dangerous chemicals in Virginia – until now.
A new state report shows that the toxic releases into air, water and land dropped by less than 1 percent from 1999 to 2000.
“It appears that we have flat-lined in terms of decreasing toxic discharges into the Virginia environment,” said Jeff Corbin, a staff scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a conservation group. Nearly 500 factories, power plants, mills and similar sites in Virginia reported toxic releases for 2000, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality report for the federal Toxic Release Inventory.
The program requires disclosure of releases of toxic chemicals that are so potent that, in sufficient concentrations, they could kill or injure people, fish or wildlife. Chemicals required to be disclosed include arsenic, ammonia, benzene, chlorine and dioxin.
The program does not assess whether people or animals are being exposed to dangerous levels of the chemicals. The DEQ seeks to prevent that through state permits that restrict the types and amounts of chemicals companies can release.
The program’s supporters figured that requiring discharges to be reported would shame companies into reducing their pollution, even though the releases are legal.
In Virginia, toxic discharges fell from 151.2 million pounds in 1988 to 73.1 million pounds in 1999, a drop of 52 percent. Between 1999 and 2000, however, toxic releases fell by just 0.27 percent, to 72.9 million pounds.
The toxic-chemical reductions are slowing, in part, because many companies are growing, DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden said.
For example, Dominion Virginia Power cranks out more electricity, which can mean more pollution, as Virginia’s population grows and uses more power.
Also, Hayden said, a factory seeking to cut pollution can have great success initially by changing a few chemicals, or eliminating some, in its production process. After those changes are made, it is tougher to prevent pollution.
“The more progress you make, the more difficult it is to make additional progress,” Hayden said.
Adding emissions of several chemicals that were required to be reported for the first time in 2000, Virginia’s toxic discharges actually climbed to 73.6 million pounds.
The 2000 totals for the toxic chemicals were:
-Released into the air: 59.2 million pounds, down 4 percent from 1999.
-Released into waterways: 8.2 million pounds, up 33.4 percent.
-Buried or put on land: 6.2 million pounds, up 16 percent.
The water-pollution numbers jumped largely because some companies reported releases of nitrates, a toxic form of nitrogen, for the first time, even though they have released nitrates in the past, Hayden said.
The top discharger of toxic chemicals is Dominion’s Chesterfield Power Station, which released 6.07 million pounds of chemicals, including hydrochloric acid and hydrogen fluoride.
The chemicals were released over a year and were largely dispersed into the air, said Dominion spokesman Dan Genest.
“People don’t get anywhere near a large enough concentration to cause a problem,” Genest said.