In its 2010 Toxics Release Inventory National Analysis Overview, released January 5, 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that metal mining accounted for 41% of disposal or other releases considered in the inventory that year, by far the largest total for any single industry in the U.S.

The report covers 79 metal mining facilities. These operations totaled 1,622.6 million lb in on-site and off-site disposal and other releases, of which 1,620.2 million lb were on-site. Of the on-site total, 1,587.6 million lb were disposed of on land, including waste rock and tailings.

Total managed production-related waste handled by the U.S. metal mining industry dropped sharply between 2001 and 2004—a trend the EPA attributes in part to changes in reporting; leveled off from 2004 through 2009; and increased by about 38% between 2009 and 2010.

In response to the EPA report, the National Mining Association commented: “Nearly all—85% to 99% by volume—of the substances reported by mining operations occur naturally in the local rock and soil and remain in low concentrations in the large amount of material handled and managed at specially designed on-site facilities permitted and regulated by state and federal laws. Because these naturally occurring trace amounts are covered by the Toxics Release Inventory, mining operations make up a large portion of the releases to land for on-site management that were reported by all operations in 2010.

“Due to increased demand for U.S. metals resulting from worldwide economic recovery that was most evident in 2010, the volume of on-site land-managed materials reported by mining also increased over 2009. The level of natural mineralization in the orebodies mined also greatly influenced the volume of materials reported by mining. Demonstrative of the increased demand for U.S. metals in 2010, more than 4,000 new jobs were added at domestic metals mines between June 2010 and June 2011.

“The Toxics Release Inventory is a weight-based report covering nearly 650 chemicals and substances and is not intended to evaluate risk. Health, safety and environmental protection at mining operations and community-related impacts are governed by other local, state and federal requirements,” the NMA said.

In 2010, 20,904 facilities reported to TRI. Together they reported total on- and off-site disposal or other releases of 3.93 billion lb of toxic chemicals. Most, said the EPA, were disposed of or released on-site to land, air or water, or injected underground.