The New York Times recently published an article dealing with the dangers created when flood waters overrun a facility that utilizes and stores toxic chemicals. In what has become a standard practice for the once respected “Old Gray Lady” (who has apparently become a victim of dementia) the article serves as a platform for political posturing. According to the authors climate change is the sole cause of the storms that cause widespread flooding. In their eyes, overbuilding, loss of permeable surface, deforestation and locating chemical plants in flood plains is irrelevant.
Politically motivated statements aside, weather-instigated release of toxic chemicals is a legitimate concern. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA) there are 21,600 facilities throughout the nation, 698 in Georgia that release toxic chemicals. That places Georgia at number 21 (out of 56- 50 states and six territories) on the agency’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) hit parade. Texas, Ohio and California are the states with the greatest number of facilities that report toxic chemical releases.
The EPA states, the TRI “tracks the management of certain toxic chemicals that may pose a threat to human health and the environment. Certain industrial facilities in the U.S. must report annually how much of each chemical is recycled, combusted for energy recovery, treated for destruction, and disposed of or otherwise released on- and off-site. This information is collectively referred to as production-related waste managed.”
The Times article states the obvious- the 2,500 facilities that handle toxic chemicals and are located in areas prone to flooding present the greatest risk of having those chemicals released in the event of a- wait for it- flood. And although flooding does in fact present the very real danger of causing toxic chemicals to be released, there isn’t much chance that facilities located in flood prone areas will be relocated; the expense is too great.
Consequently, the solution to minimizing the potential for flooding to cause the release of toxic chemicals is not hand-wringing over climate change, or political posturing. The more productive approach is to push for more aggressive treatment and containment, combined with development of processes that reduce the use and release of toxic chemicals. In that regard, facilities in Georgia are already doing a good job. EPA statistics show that of the 988.9 million pounds of production-related waste generated in Georgia during 2016, 82% was treated, 7% was consumed through energy recovery and 6% was consumed through recycling. Only 5% was disposed or released untreated.
Also of note is the fact that 68% of releases were into the air, 20 % into ware and 12% into land. The top six chemicals released into the air were ammonia, methanol, hydrogen sulfide, hydrochloric acid and styrene. Of those, only styrene is labelled as being carcinogenic.
If you’re concerned about the types of chemicals being released in your locale, you can find out more than you ever wanted to know by accessing the TRI Basic Data Files on the EPA web site. The Excel files list name and address of each facility, the chemicals released, and enough other data to bring smiles to the faces of all but the most jaded chemistry nerds.