Welcome to the Rabbit Hole, otherwise known as the Toxics Release Inventory. This is a tutorial to accompany a brief story that provides an overview of pollution released into North Carolina’s environment in 2019.
The Toxics Release Inventory, administered by the EPA, collects data from industrial facilities for 770 chemicals, and reports the findings by state, city, county, Zip code, industry and chemical.
There are some data shortcomings: Not all toxic chemicals are included in the TRI and the data is self-reported. Nonetheless, the TRI is a valuable tool for communities to know who’s polluting, which chemicals, and where they’re going.
So grab a cup of coffee or tea (or favorite adult beverage, depending on your mood), and I’ll show you in a series of steps and screenshots how to wrangle basic TRI information. Suggestion from someone who learned the hard way (me): Bookmark the various pages so you can trace your digital breadcrumbs. Sometimes if I haven’t used the TRI for a while, I have to relearn the paths, and that’s a pain.
The homepage of the TRI is straightforward. The EPA has a tutorial in English and Spanish at the bottom of the page, if you prefer video.
To search data for North Carolina, or any state, start at the Where You Live page. This is what it looks like. Notice you can even search smaller geographical areas, including tribal lands. The “Data to Display” includes total releases, land, air, water, population and a risk-screening score. That score is an estimate of potential human health risk from chronic exposures to TRI chemical releases and allows you to compare potential for risk across locations.
I’ve included an inset of the risk-screening score map and info so you know what it looks like. North Carolina ranks in the top third of states and U.S. territories in terms of risk. Not exactly something to brag about in the Chamber of Commerce newsletter.
Let’s burrow farther down into the data to see more information about the major polluters in North Carolina. This is known as a factsheet, and it’s what is shown after you hit “go” on the Where You Live page. It’s a 30,000-foot view of total releases into the environment. The factsheet also lists the Top 5 facilities in terms of pollution releases and disposal.
You can also click on the names of the facilities for more information. Let’s looks at International Paper, the Riegelwood Mill in Columbus County.
The facility report lists the address, map, public contact and compliance information.
Important: The compliance information is not always accurate. The NC Department of Environmental Quality has told me that because of an electronic communications glitch between the EPA and the state, some facilities appear to have violations when they actually don’t. Contact DEQ to doublecheck.
At the top of the facility report page, you’ll notice other areas to explore, such as chemicals, releases and transfers. Clicking on each of these reveals even more information about this paper mill.
“Chemicals” lists the names of those substances that the facility emits or discharges — and, this is an important point — are reportable under the TRI. Many chemicals, PFAS for example, were not reportable in 2019, but they were for 2020. So this time next year we will be able to see those releases.
There is also a column listing whether the chemical has been linked to harmful health effects or cancer.
This screenshot shows 10 of the 38 chemicals and compounds that the paper mill releases.
“Waste management” in the menu bar refers to how the facility disposes of their chemicals: recycling, treating, releasing and energy recovery.
Another interesting factoid on this page is a graph showing “non-production related waste from remedial actions and catastrophic or other one-time events.” That’s a long way of saying waste that was generated from accidents, spills and other ominous events. The graph doesn’t tell us why the accident happened, but it’s a starting point for asking DEQ for records and information.
International Paper reported some type of incident in 1996 that released 4,000 pounds (two tons) of chlorine dioxide into the air. The lime green bar represents 900 pounds of chlorine gas. Definitely not something you want to breathe.
The releases link is what you might think: Charts and graphs visualizing what has been released. This can show trends: Is the facility releasing more or less over time? Why or why not?
Next we’ll explore transfers. This is a big deal from an environmental justice perspective, and a topic I’m exploring for a series to be published this year.
Transfers are exactly what they sound like: Moving waste from a facility to another. This could be a landfill, an injection well, an incinerating facility, storage, wastewater treatment plan or recycling center (copper and aluminum can be recycled.)
Chemours, for example, ships its PFAS-contaminated wastewater to Arkansas and Texas. And you’ll be shocked — shocked, I say — that most of the communities receiving waste are either low-income or home to people of color. This applies even to household waste. Durham ships its trash to Sampson County, where the landfill is in an environmental justice community.
Back to chemicals: International Paper is opaque about its transfers. We know that a facility in Whiteville took some material but the other listing is “unreported transfer site.” That leads to more questions, either for DEQ or the EPA, starting with “What is this site and why wasn’t it reported?”
On a positive note, clicking on View Report for the Hazmat Emergency Response listing takes you to that facility’s page. At the bottom, census data breaks down demographics within a three-mile radius of the Hazmat site. Another note of caution: Three miles can be instructive, but within that radius, the most vulnerable people could live closer to the site. When I work on stories like this, I actually visit the area to witness what numbers can only hint at.
OK, this is a lot to absorb, so I’ll finish with one last section.
Release reports can be found at this link. I’ve found this section to be the most unwieldy. You can browse by facility, federal facility, such as military bases; chemical and industry. You can also search by state or Zip code. It’s a lot, I know. Hang on, we’re almost there.
Let’s search for all 762 facilities reporting to the TRI in North Carolina. Click on Facility, and choose North Carolina for the Geographic Location. You can also choose the year. Then click Generate Report.
And this gawd-awful spreadsheet is what you get. Here’s just a portion of it, sorted alphabetically, which is useful if you’re looking for a particular facility.
You can also sort by amount with the up and down arrows at the top of each column. And if you’re really motivated, you can also export this to Excel or Google Sheets and do your own analysis.
Here’s what the spreadsheet looks like sorted by release amount. Painful, I know. And clicking on each facility takes you a page with more information, etc. etc. I told you it was a rabbit hole.
If you want more guidance or information about the TRI, I’m happy to share whatever I know ([email protected] or @lisasorg on Twitter.) There are more ways to drill down and use other parts of the EPA’s website (and DEQ’s) to get information. All of this information is public, and the trick is viewing the data with a critical and patient eye. Data rarely answers all of your questions; instead it leads to more questions.