17% of people live near toxic release facilities; how breaks down in West Virginia

West Virginia

WVU’s Institute of Water Security and Science held drinking water testing in Fairmont Saturday (Sept. 25) (WVU Photo)

Corporate sites across the U.S are releasing toxins into the surrounding land, air, and water on a regular basis—and often unbeknownst to surrounding communities.

After an accidental release from a chemical plant in West Virginia in 1985, Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. The act established the EPA Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), which provides citizens with crucial information on the toxins being emitted locally and the names of companies doing the emitting. The TRI has allowed certain states to put emission-curbing legislation in place to safeguard public health, as was the case when Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker in 2019 passed legislation allocating $2.4 billion to climate change resilience.

Stacker analyzed data from the EPA TRI and the U.S. Census Bureau’s five-year American Community Survey to identify the percentage of each state’s population living in census tracts with toxic release sites, as well as the corporations and facilities responsible for emitting the highest amounts of toxins annually. These results, released in October 2021, reflect the last full year of data, 2020, from the 2020 National Analysis Dataset.

Keep reading to discover where the most toxins are being released in the state, what part of the environment they may be polluting, and who is being affected. You can also read the national story here.

West Virginia by the numbers

– Population living near toxic release sites: 24.7%
— 24.3% of state’s white population
— 32.1% of state’s Hispanic population
— 27.6% of state’s Black population
— 24.4% of state’s Native American population
— 18.9% of state’s Asian population
— 30.8% of state’s Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander population
– Total number of sites: 163

Harrison power station was the worst toxin source in West Virginia in 2020, emitting nearly 7 million pounds of toxins into the environment. Appalachian Power’s Amos power plant was the next highest pollutant source, releasing a little over 1.6 million pounds. That year, the state’s air pollution was dominated by sulfuric acid, which comprised 72% of the 11 million pounds of chemicals emitted.

The EPA’s TRI program recognizes 770 chemicals, with any site that manufactures or uses these chemicals at above-average levels qualifying for listing in the TRI. Chemicals described by the TRI as “toxic” are known to cause cancer or other negative health issues, as well as adverse effects on the environment. Facilities report the amounts of chemicals they release annually to the TRI, with the “release” of a chemical meaning that it is “emitted to the air or water, or placed in some type of land disposal.”

The facilities in the TRI are usually quite large and deal in electricity, metals, mining, chemicals, or hazardous waste. However, not all toxic chemicals used by corporations are listed in the TRI, meaning that its inventory of toxin-emitting sites is not exhaustive.

Keep reading to learn which states have the most and least people living near toxic release sites.

States with the most people living near toxic release sites

#1. Wisconsin: 37.3% of population living near toxic release sites
#2. Iowa: 33.5% of population living near toxic release sites
#3. Wyoming: 32.5% of population living near toxic release sites

States with the fewest people living near toxic release sites

#1. Hawaii: 6.5% of population living near toxic release sites
#2. New York: 8.3% of population living near toxic release sites
#3. California: 8.4% of population living near toxic release sites

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