Laura Seitz, Deseret News
FILE - Brahma Group contractors use oxylances to cut up a counterweight of a shovel that was recovered from the April 2013 landslide at the Kennecott Copper Mine in Bingham Canyon on Friday, March 21, 2014. Utah ranks among the highest producers of toxic chemicals in the United States, according to data and information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah ranks among the highest producers of toxic chemicals in the United States, according to data and information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A Forbes.com report shows that the Beehive State was No. 3 behind only Alaska and Nevada in the amount of toxins released into the environment during 2016, the year with the most recently available data.

The Toxic Releases Inventory report includes data from over 18,000 facilities nationwide, covering industries such as chemicals, manufacturing, mining and utilities. The total releases were measured in pounds of approximately 650 different toxins that were determined to have considerable negative impacts on humans and/or the environment.

In the report, “release” was defined as a chemical “emitted to the air or water, or placed in some type of land disposal.”

While the data may depict Utah as one of the larger producers of toxic materials, state analysts warn the information may be somewhat misleading.

Environmental scientist Melissa Ottley with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality said just because the report suggests the state produced the third largest volume of waste and toxins, it doesn't necessarily mean Utahns were being exposed to excessive pollution.

"What's important to keep in mind is that (the information) is reported as pounds of material containing certain ranges of chemicals released into the environment," she said. "Reporting volumes of releases is not reporting exposures."

The Toxic Releases Inventory report doesn't detail the concentration of toxins, she noted, which would be a more accurate indicator of toxicity as it relates to potential negative human health and environmental impacts.

"A large release may be large in volume, but really low in concentration of toxic chemicals contained in that material," Ottley said. "Nor do the reported releases (specifically) result in exposure to the public."

She noted that the toxins described in the report are required to be disposed of in an approved manner that is least detrimental to people and the environment, typically at sites designated specifically for waste management and disposition.

The state's mining industry is responsible for a large proportion of the toxins included in the report, including Rio Tinto Kennecott's operations at the Bingham Canyon Mine. The company noted that while the volume of toxins handled by the mine may be very high, the level of concentration is quite low.

"The dirt and rock that we move at the mine has naturally occurring trace levels of (various) metals," explained spokesman Kyle Bennett. "Those trace materials must be reported. For every 1 ton of ore, we'll release a little less than 1 ounce of lead and 13 ounces of copper."

He said all the waste material the company moves must be put into "a specifically sited, engineered, constructed and permitted facility" designed to contain toxic material in an environmentally safe, secure manner.

Meanwhile, one local environmental advocate expressed surprise regarding some of the report's findings, particularly given efforts by mining and industry officials along the Wasatch Front to control the volume of pollution being produced.

"We know that there is a decent amount of pollution produced and released into the environment," said Jessica Reimer, policy associate with Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah. "(The ranking) underscores the importance of ensuring that state policies and regulations are doing their job to protect Utah families, especially in one of the most population-dense counties in Utah."

It is critically important that facilities have installed the best available control technologies to reduce emission and toxin release from their operations, she added. The report also indicated that Salt Lake County ranked No. 2 nationwide in total pounds of toxic chemicals released into the environment last year.

Despite the high volume of toxins reported in the report, toxic chemicals released from industrial facilities across the nation dropped by 56 percent over a recent 10-year period, according to the EPA.

The previous Toxic Releases Inventory report showed that hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, toluene and mercury were among chemicals that had significantly lower releases from industrial facilities. The 56 percent decline was from 2005 to 2015.

In Utah, Kennecott's copper mine concentrators, power plant and smelter is the leading facility for toxic releases, followed by U.S. Magnesium, Bonanza Power Plant and EnergySolutions.

17 comments on this story

For 2015, Kennecott released or disposed of 206 million pounds of toxic chemicals, the majority of which was lead. The releases stem primarily from the movement of waste rock or overburden — excess rock and sediment moved during the mining process.

The EPA said Kennecott's smelter and refinery had one of the largest reductions in releases on a national scale, dropping 17 million pounds from 2014 to 2015.

Overall, Utah has 178 facilities that report toxic releases to the EPA and ranked No. 4 among 56 states and territories based on total releases per square mile.