A Primer on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers: How much do we know about pollution in North America today?

A trip report by Bernadette Hyland, Founder GeoHealth US Corp

Earlier this month, I attended the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) 2016 Public Meeting of the North American Pollutant Release and Transfer (PRTR) Project held in Washington D.C. CEC’s raison d’être is climate change mitigation and adaptation; green growth; and sustainable communities and ecosystems in North America.

Pollutant release and transfer registers (PRTR) support “Right-to-Know” for communities and workers regarding toxic chemicals and other substances of concern used by industry.

It is through the lens of improving environmental data sharing at a global level, especially as it relates to climate change, and health impacts, that I share this trip report.

Disclaimer: I am not trained as an environmental scientist; rather, my formal training is in computer science. I’ve spent over two decades working as a professional data wrangler for research scientists within the U.S. Government and corporate America.

For the last seven years, I’ve helped pioneer open data initiatives to make environmental and health data more available via the world’s most robust database, the World Wide Web. By making data findable, accessible, interoperable and re-usable (“FAIR”), governments, NGOs, industry and communities will be better informed and hopefully, be better stewards of our shared global environment.

What is a Pollutant Release and Transfer Register?

If you aren’t immersed in the world of environmental science, you may not know what a “PRTR” is and why they matter. Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTR) were established after the worst industrial disaster in history, the Indian Bhopal Disaster. In 1984, over 500,000 people were exposed to a cloud of extremely toxic methyl isocyanate gas (MIC) and other chemicals that escaped from a Union Carbide Chemical plant in Bhopal, India. During that industrial disaster, toxic chemicals spread throughout towns located near the Bhopal plant. Thousands died as a result of their exposure, and survivors continue to suffer with permanent disabilities.

Sadly, unintentional chemical releases have become a routine news story in industrialized nations. For example, the Kanawha River Valley in West Virginia, a mere six hour drive from the nation’s capital in Washington D.C., is home to the highest concentration of chemical plants in the U.S. Kanawha River Valley has been infamously nicknamed “Chemical Valley” and many of its residents have suffered from a century of intentional and accidental chemical releases.

PRTRs are vital tools for community organizers, scientists and researchers, government regulators, and for industry itself who in many cases are actively seeking to reduce chemical releases and harmful impacts of manufacturing and operations.

What is the role of the CEC in PRTR Tracking?

Financial support for CEC’s work comes from the Government of Canada, through Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Government of the United States of America, through the Environmental Protection Agency; and the Government of the United States of Mexico, through the Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales.

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation brought together approximately 60 members of the public and government representatives from Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, to report on the status of pollution prevention, and a range of social and economic issues underpinned by the environmental health of North America. Presentations were translated in real time into French, English and Spanish at this trinational North American forum.

In an open meeting with researchers, the general public, government officials and NGOs, speakers from Canada, the United States, and Mexico, shared the progress of their respective country’s efforts to track pollutant releases to the air, water and land, disposals, and transfers for recycling.

Why do PRTRs Matter?

Pollutant release and transfer registers (PRTR) are important because they affirm “Right-to-Know” of communities and workers regarding toxic chemicals and other substances of concern. The North American federal PRTR systems each have their own name, and offer varying degrees of reporting, analysis tools and data access.

In general, chemicals covered by PRTR programs are those that cause:

  • Cancer or other chronic human health effects
  • Significant adverse acute human health effects
  • Significant adverse environmental effects

The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1986 in response to concerns regarding the environmental and safety hazards posed by the storage and handling of toxic chemicals. The U.S. EPA Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program emerged from the pioneering EPCRA legislation. Since its inception, 50 other nations, including Canada and Mexico, have established pollution release reporting programs for industrial regulation and community right to know.

Canada calls their PRTR system the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI). It is maintained by Environment Canada and Climate Change. The NPRI is Canada’s legislated, publicly accessible inventory of pollutant releases to air, water and land, and disposals and transfers for recycling. It is used to identify pollution prevention priorities; supporting assessment and risk management of chemicals; perform air quality modeling; help develop targeted regulations for reducing releases of toxic substances and air pollutants; encourage actions to reduce the release of pollutants into the environment; and improve public understanding.

In 2014, the Canadian NPRI had 7,720 facilities report on 343 listed substances. During the presentation on Canada’s NPRI, identified areas for future improvement include: data quality, better tools for data analysis, and improving mechanisms for determining operating versus closed facilities.

Mexico calls their system pollutant releases system the Registro de Emisiones y Transferencia de Contaminantes (RETC) and it is maintained by Mexico’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (La Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT)). The Mexican PRTR Regulation was established in 2004 and defined the foundation of information release and transfer of pollutants.

CEC has been instrumental in pollution reporting capacity within Mexico. Evan Lloyd, Director of Programs at the Secretariat and the number two official during a 2008 interview, said that the development of the PRTR registry “clearly would not have happened without NAFTA. There has been a raising of the bar in terms of environmental standards in Mexico.”

Today, the Mexican PRTR public information system contains a company’s name, location, and releases or transfers from a list of 104 substances, in addition to criteria pollutant emissions from stationary sources amount. More information. While reporting is slow, in 2013, Mexico had over 3 million public establishments under federal jurisdiction that were required to report to SEMARNAT. That year, the regulated community reported 73 substances emitted to air, water, soil, or transferred into waste or water discharge. Unfortunately, the Web page provided for the Mexican PRTR 2013 Preliminary PRTR results returned a File not Found error (404) — hopefully that is a temporary issue that will be remedied shortly.

“Encouraging action through information disclosure” — U.S. EPA Toxics Release Program

The Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program is run by the U.S. EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. The TRI Program conceived of a novel approach to pollution prevention, “encouraging action through information disclosure.” The TRI Program is the most extensive program if measured in terms of chemical coverage and number of regulated entities. TRI is also the longest running PRTR program. For the 30th Anniversary of the Toxics Release Program, EPA put together an informative series of TRI explainer videos that are well worth watching and sharing.

Like the Canadian and Mexican programs, U.S. companies of a minimum size, are required to report on the storage, use and releases of hazardous substances to federal, state, and local governments. U.S. state and local governments, and tribes, use the self-reported information to learn about what their industry neighbors are emitting into the air, water and land, and prepare their community from potential risks.

Over 650 chemicals are included in the TRI Program. Facilities that manufacture, process or otherwise use these chemicals in amounts above established levels must submit annual TRI reports on each chemical. The TRI chemical list doesn’t include all toxic chemicals used in the U.S., however in 2015, over 22,000 toxic release reports were submitted by industry. Learn more about TRI Reporting requirements.

North American PRTR Public Conference Highlights

Top speakers included Dr. Kate Bassil, Toronto Public Health, University of Toronto who spoke on the importance of integrated data to enable decision making. Dr. Bassil focused on restoration of ecosystems and public health in the Great Lakes. She emphasized the importance of integrated data to examine the impacts of fish contamination, invasive species, climate change, transboundary air pollution, harmful algal blooms, and water contamination.

Next, Dr. Scott Sowa, Director of Science for the The Nature Conservancy’s Great Lakes Project, gave an excellent talk titled: “Identifying and Addressing Barriers to Information Flow to Great Lakes Decision Makers”. A key point emphasized by Dr. Sowa is that environmental research suffers not from monitoring but rather from information delivery.

“I was constantly brought environmental data, but is was never put into any context” — Dr. Scott Sowa, The Nature Conservancy

Dr. Sowa highlighted the necessity for information in context in order to provide compelling stories to inform policy makers. Information only exists when you have 3 things:

  1. Goals & objectives;
  2. Relevant data; and
  3. Relevant knowledge.

Thus, in considering sustainable industry & sustainable agriculture, define a shared information strategy that describes information flow in an “information supply chain”.

Recommended reading from this excellent presentation by Dr. Sowa includes the “Great Lakes Blue Accounting: Empowering Decisions to Realize Regional Water Value” published in 2014 on water monitoring in North America.

I personally appreciated the Q&A sessions, providing press and the public opportunity to ask questions. It was a good opportunity for members of the Mexican Press to surface their concerns related to potentially hazardous chemicals in front of an international community working on pollution management and environmental justice issues.

Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) — Canada, Mexico and the United States working together to protect our shared environment

Leveraging Government Open Data and Taking Stock Online

CEC integrates public open data and now runs an online query tool. The CEC Taking Stock Online tool analyzes PRTR data from the Canadian National Pollutant Release Inventory, the U.S. Toxics Release Inventory, and Mexico’s Registro de Emisiones y Transferencia de Contaminantes.

Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC)The CEC is to be commended for a significant data harmonization effort using open government data sets. The online tool enables users to query data from 2006 to 2013, across North America, specifying watersheds, pollutant type, by North American Industry Classification Codes, by release and transfer type, and by weight.

CEC publishes a useful summary on PRTR Reporting Requirements, including a downloadable spreadsheet of common pollutants by each of the North American PRTR programs, organized by chemical name and a unique identifier called a CAS number, assigned by the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS), a division of the American Chemical Society.

The Taking Stock report details pollutant releases and transfers reported by approximately 35,000 industrial facilities across North America from 2005 through 2010, with an in-depth view of releases from the pulp and paper industry.

Conference Summary

During this public meeting hosted by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), civil society, researchers, open data advocates, and the press, met to share updates on the progress and the considerable work that remains to be done with respect to realizing improved conservation and enhancement of North America’s shared environment. Find out more at: www.cec.org.

There are now 50 countries worldwide with some form of PRTR reporting. These online systems list potentially harmful chemicals with details on the types of chemicals and quantities of releases and transfers. PRTR databases are accessible, with varying degrees of granularity and coverage. Each are at a different stage of “openness” and interoperability.

Data interoperability was at the top of the agenda. Speakers all highlighted the need for improvements with respect to:

  • Data availability
  • Data accessibility
  • Data harmonization
  • Stakeholder collaboration
  • Policy & strategic alignment
  • Environmental-human health indicators
  • Data exchange networks

Future Work Required to Support Pollution Reduction

  • Data quality
  • Tools for data analysis
  • Which facilities are operating vs. closed

Pollution reporting is showing a reduction in pollution emissions and releases overall. Continued cross border cooperation and collaboration, especially with respect to putting data in context and having a well-defined information strategy, including an information supply chain, is essential to advance green growth, sustainable communities and ecosystems in North America.

Research on pressing environmental justice issues, resulting from the cumulative effects of pollution, impacting minority populations and low-income populations, requires well-integrated and meaningful PRTR systems. The speakers each highlighted the power of contextualized information to inform policy and strategy. Clearly, with so much at stake regarding pollution prevention, social justice or public health, the CEC is doing very valuable work.

For anyone working on issues related to sustainable industry, climate change and environmental justice, I highly recommend participating in future North American PRTR public conferences, see http://www.cec.org/news-and-outreach/press-releases.