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CEC Report Finds Mining as North America’s Most Polluting Industry: Urgent Need for Action

A new report by the Montreal-based Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) has found that mining is the most polluting industry in North America. According to the report, mining is responsible for 36% of industrial pollutants released in the three countries of Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Primary metal manufacturing, chemical manufacturing, and oil and gas extraction are the next biggest polluting industries. When it comes to air pollutants, chemical manufacturing leads the way with 26% of pollutants released, followed by paper manufacturing, utilities, and food manufacturing. Utilities like wastewater treatment were found to be the biggest pollutants in surface water, with 56% of pollutants released.

The CEC report analyzed data from 24,000 industrial facilities across the three countries, and found that the region released or transferred more than 5.2 billion kilograms of industrial pollutants in 2020. Canada was responsible for 46% of these, the US for 53%, and Mexico for just 0.35%. In addition, the report found that 36% of industrial pollutants were being transferred off-site for recycling, treatment, or energy recovery. The other 57% of pollutants were disposed of on-site through land release, air emissions, underground injection, and surface water discharge.

The report highlights the lack of information about what happens to waste pollutants once they are transferred to third parties or across borders for handling or disposal. It also notes concerns about the potential environmental and human health risks associated with certain disposal methods, particularly when the responsibility for a facility’s waste is transferred to a third party and/or across international borders.

The report found that Canada’s mining industry is the biggest polluter, accounting for 54% of all reported industrial pollutants in 2020. The Detour Lake gold mine near Cochrane, Ontario was found to be the biggest polluter in Canada when only the most harmful pollutants to human health were considered. Alberta and Manitoba held the top spots for air emissions in Canada, with Suncor’s oil sands facility in Fort McMurray, Alberta, being the biggest polluter. Urban wastewater treatment plants in Toronto and Calgary released the most pollutants into the water.

In terms of Canadian watersheds, the St. Lawrence River area was home to 21% of all pollutants released or transferred in 2020, followed by the Mackenzie River, the Hudson Bay Seaboard, the Nelson River, and the Atlantic Ocean Seaboard. The report also highlighted gaps in reporting requirements between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, particularly in oil and gas extraction facilities and sewage treatment plants.

The report’s findings are significant, as they illustrate the urgent need for measures to reduce pollution in these industries. While the report acknowledges that some of the pollutants are being transferred off-site for recycling, treatment, or energy recovery, it also points out that more needs to be done to address the risks associated with the transfer of waste pollutants across borders.

The report’s data can help inform decisions about preventing pollution and advancing environmental justice by reducing the risk of exposure to contaminants in vulnerable communities. The CEC was established by the governments of Canada, Mexico, and the United States in 1994 to foster environmental cooperation under NAFTA. The results and data can be explored in the report, Taking Stock Vol. 16, and in an interactive online portal.

By: Daniel C.

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