How Do Cities Monitor Industrial Waste?

September 25, 2018

How many hazardous industrial sites, both active and relic, populate American cities today? In their new RSF book, Sites Unseen: Uncovering Hidden Hazards in American Cities, authors Scott Frickel (Brown University) and James R. Elliott (Rice University) investigate establishments and homes that were once sites of industrial manufacturers, such as plastics factories or machine shops, in New Orleans, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Portland, Oregon. These sites, the authors point out, often contain carcinogens and other hazardous industrial byproducts, unbeknownst to the people who live and work there.

One public resource designed to monitor such sites is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) database, which tracks industrial manufacturers’ management of toxic chemicals and other hazardous waste dating back to 1986. “Under current EPA guidelines,” Frickel and Elliott write, “industrial facilities in regulated sectors are required to report releases of chemicals when the volume of toxins released totals more than twenty-five thousand pounds and when the facility responsible employs ten or more workers during that same year.” However, because there are a number of loopholes and exemptions written into the reporting guidelines, not every active manufacturer is required to report to TRI. In their research, Frickel and Elliot found that while the majority of manufacturers that report to TRI in the four cities they studied did report their on-site releases of hazardous materials, only a small percentage of all manufacturers in those cities reported to TRI: 

“This exceptionally low turnout in reporting is most likely not because few active facilities are generating pollution,” the authors note. “More likely, the low rates are linked to the voluntary nature of TRI reporting requirements, which EPA has claimed to be cheaper and more effective than leaving release accounting to regulators despite academic research indicating substantial underreporting.” As a consequence of this underreporting, the TRI data captures only a very small percentage of on-site hazardous releases. 

To locate and examine the sites that did not report to the TRI, Frickel and Elliot constructed their own database, the Historically Hidden Industrial Database (HHID), using directories of manufacturers in the four cities in their study. By cross-referencing the HHID, they were able to identify the total number of hazardous industrial sites in these cities. As the figure below shows, in 2008 the vast majority of active and relic industrial sites went unreported:

As Frickel and Elliott show in their book, one consequence of the incomplete data captured by the TRI is that industrial waste can spread through cities relatively unabated as former manufacturing sites are later converted to urban amenities such as parks, homes, and storefronts. “Regulatory agencies need to create roles for people to do the kind of historical work we've done to recover this lost knowledge about these legacy sites,” author Scott Frickel said in a recent interview with Pacific Standard. “It's critically important that urban planners and urban policy people who are talking about green cities and sustainable cities take history seriously.”

Read more about Sites Unseen or purchase a copy.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


The Russell Sage Foundation offers grants and positions in our Visiting Scholars program for research.


Join our mailing list for email updates.