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NAFTA pollution data questioned

New data is presented and analyzed in the latest "Taking Stock" report from the Commission for Environmental Cooper...


New data is presented and analyzed in the latest “Taking Stock” report from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) — NAFTA’s environmental watchdog agency — and the results have led to some controversy, including claims that the 2003 data on which the CEC relies is out of date (when more current data exists) and concerns that Canadian cement plants aren’t measuring their emissions are rigorously as their counterparts in the United States, painting a false picture of superior environmental performance.

Overall, “Taking Stock” shows that industrial chemical releases fell by 20 per cent in North America between 1998 and 2003, including a reduction in releases to air of 21 per cent.

Released on June 27, the annual report compiles data from the Canadian National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) and the United States’ Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) that are matched to provide a North American picture of industrial chemicals in the environment. It finds that almost three million tonnes of chemicals were released and transferred in 2003 (the most recent reporting year of data analyzed by the CEC) by 23,816 facilities.

Facilities from Canada and the United States that reported pollution prevention activities, ranging from equipment modifications to process changes and materials substitution, showed reductions from 2002 to 2003 in releases and transfers.

But facilities in Canada not reporting pollution prevention activities showed a net increase in releases and transfers. The facilities in the United States without pollution prevention activities had a smaller decrease than their counterparts.

“It is encouraging to see the reductions in releases and transfers of chemicals in our environment, and that pollution prevention efforts offer the promise of even further reductions,” says William V. Kennedy, executive director of the CEC. “We hope this evidence will prompt more industrial facilities to embrace pollution prevention activities over end-of-pipe solutions.”

The report takes a special look at the cement manufacturing industry. It reveals that although they are relatively few in number (156), cement manufacturing facilities are a significant source of some criteria air contaminants (256,123 metric tonnes of NOx and 200,393 metric tonnes of SO2) and persistent bioaccumulative toxics (e.g., 7,648 kg of mercury).

Comparing the releases and transfers of cement facilities in Canada, Mexico and the United States was more difficult, due to differences in individual reporting methods between countries. For example, cement facilities in Canada reported releases and transfers of 25 substances, while in the United States, facilities reported releases and transfers of 79 substances. The differences, however, may be due to several factors, including the fuels and raw materials, processes, and pollution control devices used, and the methods employed to estimate releases and transfers. Some industry observers note that the penalties for misreporting data are far more severe in the United States than Canada, and that this likely explains why less pollutants appear to be emitted from Canadian plants more than any technical factor.

Globe and Mail reporter Martin Mittelstaedt questions whether the CEC environmental watchdog has the information it needs, and also whether it has the power to blow the whistle and call NAFTA governments when they ignore environmental laws. One example he cites is the fact that CEC allows NAFTA governments to look over the findings and alter them before they’re released to the public. Mittelstaedt also points to budget shortfalls that may be forcing the CEC to fall short of its mission.

The next edition of “Taking Stock” will feature data from Mexico’s new Pollutant Release and Transfer Register, the Registro de Emisiones y Transferencia de Contaminantes (RETC). The Mexican pollution reporting system lists 104 chemicals that must be reported by industry in Mexico.

To read the latest Taking Stock report, visit: www.cec.org/takingstock


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