Slaughterhouses, power plants, even breweries: These businesses and other polluting industries released 62 million pounds of toxics into North Carolina’s air and onto its land in 2014.
That total ranked North Carolina 18th among 56 U.S. states and territories, based on the amount of toxic releases per square mile that year, the most recent data available. (Numbers for 2015 are available but still in draft form.)
The largest polluter in the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, CPI USA in Brunswick County generated 4.9 million pounds of emissions that year.
CPI burns biomass — wood and tires — along with coal. Among the chemicals it releases are chromium, cobalt, lead and nickel, all known to cause cancer in humans.
The company’s headquarters are in Canada, but it owns fossil-fuel and renewable energy plants in the U.S., as well.
CPI is one of 758 facilities in the state that reports to the Toxic Release Inventory. Since 1986, the TRI has required businesses that manufacture certain chemicals, and that have at least 10 employees, to report releases into the air, water and land each year. There are more than 21,000 such facilities in the U.S.
Eastern North Carolina bears a significant toxic release burden, according to TRI data. All five of the top polluters are in that part of the state. (These totals don’t include pesticides from agriculture or methane from swine waste lagoons.)
- PCS Phosphate, Beaufort County (4.65 million pounds)
- International Paper, Columbus County (3.83 million)
- Smithfield Packing (hogs), Bladen County (3.82 million)
- Lewiston Processing (chicken), Bertie County (2.7 million)
Thirty years ago, Congress passed TRI legislation to give communities more information about what contaminants are being released in their neighborhoods, and by whom. However, the data does have limitations. Facilities are required to report only some of the toxics it releases, not all of them. For example, pollutants from dry cleaners and gas stations are not tracked via the TRI.
Facilities also may estimate their releases, rather than provide actual data. And the health risks of exposure depend on many factors, such as how the chemical accumulates in the environment and the age of the person exposed, not just the amount of the emissions.
Nonetheless, by tracking more than 650 chemicals, the TRI is considered the most comprehensive database for these emissions available through the EPA. Over the past 30 years, the agency has added hundreds of chemicals to the list (and deleted some, too.) For example, this year, the agency is considering including a type of flame retardant in the TRI.
And the number of plants in a county can be less important than the chemicals those facilities are emitting, and in what amounts.
For example, compare the five counties with the greatest number of facilities to those with the largest number of toxic releases:
County Number of facilities
- Mecklenburg 57
- Guilford 52
- Iredell 29
- Forsyth 28
- Gaston 26
County Pounds of releases (millions)
- Beaufort 4.6
- Bertie 3.3
- Person 2.5
- Catawba 2.2
- New Hanover 1.9
Click a number on the TRI North Carolina map to see a county-by-county tally of facilities and toxic, plus a link to each county’s full report.