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Legal Loophole Lets Fossil Fuel Emit Toxins in 6 States, Report Says

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Hundreds of oil and gas facilities are together emitting 8.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals annually that go unreported to the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory because of a loophole, according to a letter addressed by the Environmental Integrity Project to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The emissions are in six energy boom states including Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, Louisiana, North Dakota and Pennsylvania.

When the inventory was established by the EPA in 1986, it applied solely to manufacturers. In the 1990s, there was a push by the Clinton administration to add other industries, including coal mining, oil refineries and oil and gas extraction facilities -- which the EPA has acknowledged involves the release of toxic chemicals. But there was uncertainty on how to define or categorize oil and gas wells (whether as individual wells or in a group). The agency punted on the decision and never returned to it.

In 2012, the nonpartisan, nonprofit EIP, founded a decade earlier by former EPA enforcement attorneys to advocate for the enforcement of environmental laws, petitioned the EPA to finally close the loophole and say the oil and gas extraction industry had to report their emissions.

"We are in the middle of an oil and gas boom, but have far too little information about the environmental consequences," said EIP's executive director, Eric Schaeffer, in a press release . "We need this industry to report that pollution to the Toxics Release Inventory where everyone can see it -- just like chemical plants and other facilities have done for more than 20 years."

Richard Metcalf, director of environmental affairs with the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, told The Times-Picayune of New Orleans last month that not only would registering with the TRI be costly and impractical for the hundreds of smaller oil and gas facilities scattered across the state, but that those types of facilities arent the kinds the TRI was designed to monitor. A statement on the Colorado Oil and Gas Associations website looked at the 1990s evaluation and said it simply "concluded that the oil and natural gas production industry should not be added to TRI reporting."

In the absence of inventory-recorded data, the EIP launched its own investigation on the impact of the reporting loophole. Their findings were submitted to the EPA in January on behalf of 13 advocacy groups including the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch), Clean Water Action, Environment America and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The EIP found that 395 oil and gas extraction facilities were each emitting more than 10,000 pounds of at least one toxic chemical. Texas, which has the most facilities at 209, was found to have the highest rate of emissions. This was followed by Colorado at 124 facilities and Louisiana (34), Wyoming (14), Pennsylvania (13) and North Dakota (one). Nearly 200 of the sites in question were found to have surpassed the 10,000 pounds-per-year threshold of toxic emissions that usually triggers a registration requirement with the inventory. Most of the facilities emitted toxins in excess of 10,000 pounds for more than two years in a row.