A few ‘super polluters’ spew most industrial pollution

"The more you compare like facilities, the more you see a handful of facilities are accounting for the majority of the toxic pollution emitted in one year from that industry," says Simone Pulver. (Credit: veeterzy/Unsplash)

A small number of facilities that emit unusually high levels of toxic chemicals account for the majority of annual industrial pollution year after year, according to a new study covering a 15-year period.

“This pattern had previously been identified in one industry at one point in time, but the pushback was, ‘Well, that’s an exception.’ What we showed is that it’s not the exception, it’s the rule,” says Simone Pulver, associate professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-lead author of the paper in Environmental Research Letters.

The study is the first to establish disproportionality in the production of toxic pollution both across a wide range of industries and over an extended period of time.

The researchers examined US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, spanning the years 1998 to 2012, on toxic releases from more than 25,000 facilities in 322 manufacturing industries.

Striking results

“The more you compare like facilities, the more you see a handful of facilities are accounting for the majority of the toxic pollution emitted in one year from that industry,” Pulver says. “It’s a consistent pattern across a wide range of industries. It’s an egregious pattern because it’s really extreme, and it’s an incredibly stable pattern over time.”

“Not all polluters are the same, even those who seem like they should be, because they operate in the same industry, produce similar goods, et cetera,” says lead author Mary Collins of the State University of New York, Syracuse.

“Instead, a small group generate much more harm than the rest. This finding is not entirely new, but with Simone and our two graduate students (Dustin Hill and Ben Manski), we show that this is widely true across industries and time.”

The findings have significant implications for the regulation of toxic pollution and suggest that focusing on the relatively small number of facilities doing the most polluting could lead to major reductions to pollution.

“There are a handful of facilities that alone generate more than 50% of their entire industry’s emissions,” Collins says.

Of the more than 25,000 facilities the team analyzed, they characterize 1,116 as egregious polluters, defined as single facilities that generated 50% or more of the total annual hazard within an industry.

“But it’s complicated,” Pulver says. Making it so, among other complexities, is that it’s not always the same facilities each year doing the egregious polluting. Of the group of super polluting facilities, the researchers note, only 31 facilities are “consistently egregious polluters within their industries throughout the study period.”

Small group of big polluters

In their study, Collins and Pulver looked at more than 300 industries that reported toxic emissions, had more than five facilities reporting emissions each year, and had data about their employees, overall providing a solid characterization of the US manufacturing sector.

The researchers were careful to compare things as similar as possible, such as facilities making the same product and with access to the same technology, and to control for facility size.

Finding that “the generation of environmental harm is not distributed equally across units but rather concentrated within a small group of egregious actors,” their results challenge the presumption of proportionality between economic activity and environmental harm.

“Even with all the controls—the same business done in the same way—you see this real inequality,” Pulver says. “A lot of facilities are not producing much toxic pollution at all to make their product, while a small handful are producing a whole lot of toxic pollution to do the exact same thing.

“You expect inequality when you look at the economy as a whole—there are more resource intensive businesses, things are not evenly distributed in nature, and so on,” she says. “But that’s why I find this pattern so surprising. We expected to see some of it but not for it to be this extensive.”

Ranking industrial polluters

Some interesting details: The highest level of disproportionality the researchers uncovered appeared in the “All Other Basic Inorganic Chemical Manufacturing” category; the lowest in industrial mold manufacturing. The biggest increase in inequality, over the course of the study, occurred in bituminous coal underground mining.

Taken altogether, the findings have both scholarly and policy implications for the nature of pollution generation, for the role of targeting in environmental regulatory decision-making, and for efforts from environmental advocates, according to the authors.

“There are some facilities where there are real opportunities for learning and improvements to bring them in line with other facilities in their industries,” Pulver says. “There is a standard that’s possible in terms of damage to environment, and that standard is demonstrated by a vast majority of facilities. Here is an opportunity to get that handful of facilities up to that standard.”

Source: UC Santa Barbara