Toxic Chemicals and Relative Risk — an Alien Concept to Virginians

The chemical structure of 1,2,4 trimethylbenzene, of which 132,000 pounds were released into Virginia’s air and waterways in 2017. Are we safe? Should you be worried? Should government spend billions to “do” something?

The West Point paper mill, one of Virginia’s 10 largest emitters of toxic materials in 2017, emitted 7.6% fewer toxic materials in 2017 compared to the year before, reports the Daily Press today. All told, the paper mill released 852,914 pounds — mostly menthol, ammonia, and hydrochloric acid — into the air and water. That news got me to thinking…

There are a couple of obvious story lines that could be extracted from the data, which comes from the release of 2017 numbers from the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). One, which the Daily Press adopts, is that West Point, like other major manufacturers, has done an excellent job over the years in grinding out steady reductions in the volume of toxic chemicals it releases into the environment.

The other story line is the degree to which Virginians are absolutely insensate to the massive volume of chemicals pumped into the air and water. The TRI lists 138 toxic chemicals from 1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene to zinc compounds — totaling 34.5 million pounds in all. These chemicals vary widely in their emission volumes, their toxicity, and the speed with which they break down or are otherwise rendered harmless.

But one thing these compounds have in common is that no one is losing sleep over them.

The citizens of West Point aren’t falling into fits of anxiety over being poisoned or afflicted with cancer from the 853,000 pounds of toxic emissions from their local paper plant. Politically speaking, with the highly visible exception of the furor over trace quantities of slow-leaking heavy metals from coal ash pits which triggered a $1 billion+ cleanup plan, toxic chemicals are a non-issue in Virginia.

Environmentalists succeeded in generating widespread alarm over coal ash disposal. But the release of 132,000 pounds of, say, 1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene or 331,400 pounds of acetalhyde doesn’t create a ripple.

My point here is not to criticize the remedies enacted to prevent the leakage of heavy metals from coal ash pits into Virginia waterways. It’s that politicians make billion-dollar environmental decisions with absolutely no concept of relative risk. What level of risk would be posed by the slow leakage of heavy metals from coal ponds, measured in a few parts per million, compared to the 2017 release of 311,000 pounds of lead compounds, 1.4 million pounds of zinc compounds, and 1,500 pounds of mercury compounds directly into the air and water?

I have no idea what the relative risks are. The citizenry has no idea. The media have no idea. The politicians have no idea. And I doubt even the environmentalists have any idea.

Here’s how it works in Virginia: Environmentalists fixate on an issue and gin up alarm, the media uncritically passes on that fixation to the public and the political class, and then the political class moves to “fix” the perceived problem with little regard to cost. Is this a rational way to allocate scarce resources? Do we have any assurance that society is getting the most “bang for the buck” in addressing environmental concerns? The answer in both cases is a resounding, “No.”

As an aside… For what it’s worth the 34.5 million pounds of toxic and potentially toxic chemicals emitted into Virginia skies and water in 2017 compares to 66.7 million pounds in 2007 — a 48% reduction over the past decade. Are you feeling safer from the threat of environmental harm than you did 10 years ago? No, I didn’t think so.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

6 responses to “Toxic Chemicals and Relative Risk — an Alien Concept to Virginians

  1. Good Lord, Bacon, what did you have for breakfast? One crazy blog posting after another. With this one, are we to believe that neither the media, the average person nor a politician knows what the impact of total chemical pollution is? Who does know? The corporations that are the polluters? What’s next from you? A column on why Kepone should be brought back.

    • Obviously, Peter, the notion of applying rational cost-benefit calculations have no place in your approach to environmental protection. Just go with the latest media scare and throw money at the problem.

      • re: ” I have no idea what the relative risks are. The citizenry has no idea. The media have no idea. The politicians have no idea. And I doubt even the environmentalists have any idea.”

        But the science does and the EPA and DEQ using that science does and that information is available to ANYONE who wants to educate themselves and be informed.

        So if we’re gonna condemn someone – start with the ignorant who choose to be so and then try to put blame on someone else for their own lack of will to find out themselves.

        I call this the mournful whining of the purposely ignorant who whine about “media scares” and such while CHOOSING to NOT find out for themselves.

        The info is easily available and quite voluminous:

        https://www.epa.gov/clean-air-act-overview/setting-emissions-standards-major-sources-toxic-air-pollutants

        The risk IS quantified by science and incorporated into the regulations but we have a whole set of folks these days who are not scientists who disagree with the science and accuse scientists of conspiracies to mislead people………..

        that’s a lose-lose. The choice to be willfully ignorant, ignoring information that IS available and blaming media and environmentalists for their own refusal to inform themselves.

        This is what has happened to us in the age of unlimited access to information. We no longer trust science and we claim that scientists are in bed with environmentalists and media to “scare” people so alas – we just don’t know the true “risks”.

        Lord O’Mighty

  2. The Smurfit West Point paper mill is also one of the largest consumers of groundwater in the State, depressing the water table over a wide area in a region that already stresses the available water supply for agriculture and for drinking. You should also ask why they can’t simply filter and use fresh water from the Mattaponi or Pamunkey Rivers, but persist in withdrawing precious groundwater in enormous volumes instead? And why does the State allow this? And why are environmentalists blind to this, as you say?

    • The state does regulate the withdrawal of groundwater by large users. Here is the explanation from the DEQ website:

      “Under the Ground Water Management Act of 1992, Virginia manages groundwater through a program regulating the withdrawals of groundwater in certain areas called Groundwater Management Areas (GWMA). Currently, there are two Groundwater Management Areas in the state. The Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management Area comprises all areas east of Interstate 95. The Eastern Shore Groundwater Management Area includes Accomack and Northampton counties. Any person or entity located within a declared GWMA must obtain a permit to withdraw 300,000 gallons or more of groundwater in any one month.”

      The paper mill therefore certainly has a permit and, I assume, operates within that permit. How much groundwater it is permitted to withdraw and whether that amount is reasonable are other questions. My recollection of this process from my tangential associations with it years ago is that DEQ is supposed to base permit amounts on the general health of the aquifer and other demands, such as agriculture. But your question of why doesn’t the paper mill use river water like Dominion uses Lake Anna for its nuclear plant is quite a legitimate one.

  3. Too late to comment.
    Sorry we were in Bryce Canyon without internet.

Leave a Reply