New EPA data shows NC released 59 million pounds of toxic chemicals in 2021, ranks 17th in US

By: - April 12, 2023 6:00 am
An aerial view of the Chemours plant

An aerial view of the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant in northern Bladen County. (Photo: Chemours)

More than 59 million pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the environment in North Carolina in 2021, according to new EPA data, the largest amount since 2015.

Averaged across the state, that amount is equivalent to 1,046 pounds per square mile.

The 2021 “Toxics Release Inventory” tracks discharges and emissions of nearly 800 harmful chemicals from many industries, including paper mills, chemical plants, plastics manufacturers and slaughterhouses. The TRI, as it’s known, requires facilities to report the data — which covers air, water, land, offsite disposal and chemical recycling — every year. (There is a time lag between the reporting deadline of July and EPA’s publication of the TRI.)

Small facilities are exempt from reporting: Those with fewer than 10 employees and that manufacture, processes or imports less than 25,000 pounds of a TRI-listed chemical annually.

North Carolina ranks 17th among 56 states and U.S. territories in amount of chemical releases. (This link will take you to an Excel spreadsheet of all companies, addresses, amount of releases and types of chemicals.

A graph shows the amount of toxic chemical releases was nearly 59 million pounds last year, the largest amount since 2015. That year, the total was roughly 63 million pounds. Graphic by the EPA
(Graphic: EPA)

The TRI website contains voluminous information on the facilities, chemicals, demographic data, and where the releases enter the environment, including via air, land, water and other disposal methods, such as offsite landfills and underground injection wells.

Here are the top 5 North Carolina companies in terms of onsite releases:

  1. Smithfield Foods’ Tar Heel hog slaughter plant, Bladen County: 4 million pounds, all of it nitrate compounds discharged to water
  2. Lewiston processing, a poultry slaughter plant operated by Perdue Farms in Bertie County: 2.19 million pounds, all of it nitrate compounds. All but 13 pounds of chemicals were released to water. (The remainder was applied to land.)
  3. PCS Phosphate which makes fertilizers in Beaufort County: 2.5 million pounds, all of it hydrogen sulfide, emitted into the air
  4. International Paper, Columbus County: 2 million pounds, most of it methanol emitted into the air
  5. Blue Ridge Paper Products, also known as Pactiv, Haywood County: 1.3 million pounds, most of it air emissions, with lesser amounts discharged into water and stored onsite. Five of the chemical types are known carcinogens. The plant is scheduled to close later this year.

All of these facilities are located in communities of color or low-income neighborhoods — or both.

While every chemical in the TRI is classified as toxic, only some are known to cause cancer. Of the hundreds of chemicals, nearly 50 known carcinogens, totaling more than 1 million pounds were released in North Carolina last year. This list includes:

  • 5,700 pounds of 1,4-Dioxane, an emerging compound that as yet has no drinking water or air quality standard. Emitters: DAK America in Cumberland County, Starpet in Randolph County and Stepan in New Hanover County.
  • Thirty-nine companies, many of them boat manufacturers, released 978,000 pounds of styrene. This does not include World Cat, a boat builder in Pitt County. It illegally operated without a permit, then applied for one to the Division of Air Quality. DAQ granted the company, which is across the street from a Head Start program, a permit last year.

It’s common for polluting industries to congregate in the same neighborhoods. They are usually communities of color or low-income areas that bear a disproportionate and cumulative pollution burden.

  • World Cat, for example, is near the Grady-White Boat factory, also a source of styrene and two other cancer-causing chemicals.
  • Similarly, Chemours and DuPont share the same land in northern Bladen County. In addition to Chemours’s release of toxic PFAS, the two companies also emit more than 113,000 pounds of known carcinogens into the air.
  • Bakelite Synthetics in Riegelwood, in Columbus County (7,197 pounds of formaldehyde) is in the same vicinity as a Superfund site, as well in the same town as International Paper, itself an emitter of 127,000 pounds of carcinogens last year.




Total emissions — 20.1 million pounds* by 571 facilities

Top counties — Haywood, Bertie, Columbus, Martin, Halifax

Top chemicals

  • Methanol, which is flammable, accounted for a third of all toxic air emissions, primarily from the wood and paper products sector: International Paper, Blue Ridge Paper Products, Domtar, Georgia-Pacific, Enviva and Westrock.

Hazards: Chronic exposure increases the risk of developmental problems. Acute exposure to high levels of methanol, either by drinking or breathing it, can cause blindness, and damage the brain, liver and pancreas. In extreme cases, it can be fatal.

  • Hydrogen sulfide, often identified by a “rotten egg smell,” ranks second in the amount of chemical air emissions. It is flammable.

PCS Phosphate in Aurora emitted the largest amount – 2 million pounds. Paper mills and slaughterhouses, including Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant and Sanderson Farms poultry processing facilities, are also primary sources of hydrogen sulfide.

Hazards: In addition to heart and kidney damage, hydrogen sulfide can cause cough, shortness of breath, and bronchial or lung hemorrhage. Higher concentrations can be fatal. Children are especially susceptible to breathing problems because they have smaller airways.

*Includes those leaving a facility’s stack and “fugitive” emissions, which bypass the stack.


The Haw River at Bynum Bridge, near Pittsboro’s drinking water intake (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Total releases — 8.5 million pounds by 131 facilities

Top counties — Bladen ranks 14th among all U.S. counties in amount of discharges per square mile – 4,530 pounds – for a total of 4 million pounds. Second place is Bertie (2.2 million), followed by Lee (588,000).

Top chemicals

  • Nitrate and related compounds compose 89% of toxic water discharges. Smithfield’s slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, among the largest in the world, is responsible for nearly all of the nitrate discharges in Bladen County. Chemours is the other major source.

Camp Lejeune and Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals in Wake County also discharge nitrate.

Hazards: Because nitrate exposure can affect how the blood carries oxygen, bottle-fed infants whose formula is mixed with water containing high levels of the chemical can develop “blue baby syndrome,” which can be fatal.

Adults can also suffer from many health problems, including: increased heart rate, nausea, headaches, and abdominal cramps. Some studies also suggest an increased risk of cancer, especially gastric cancer, but there is not yet scientific consensus on this question, according to the CDC.


Total releases — 9.1 million pounds

Top counties — Beaufort, New Hanover, Person, Catawba and Stokes

There are several types of “land releases,” including waste that shipped to or stored in landfills or other impoundments, treated onsite and offsite, and placed in injection wells. 

For all types of land releases, Fortron Industries, a plastics manufacturer in New Hanover County ranks first in the state at 174 million pounds.

The reason Stokes, Person and Catawba counties rank so high in terms of land releases is because Duke Energy has coal ash impoundments at its power plants: 10 million pounds at the Belews Creek facility; 8.3 million pounds at the Roxboro plant; and 7.8 million pounds at the Marshall plant.

Elementis Chromium in New Hanover County also disposed of 1.5 million pounds in a “surface impoundment.”

In terms of onsite waste treatment, the Lewiston poultry slaughterhouse in Bertie County ranks first, with 33 million pounds. The top company for offsite treatment is StarPet, which manufactures plastics in Randolph County (353,000 pounds.)

Top chemicals 

  • While zinc is an important nutrient, inhaling large amounts of zinc in dust can cause short-term respiratory issues. When zinc combines with other chemicals, the compounds (chloride, sulfate) can be hazardous. In addition to air and water releases, 344,000 pounds of zinc was disposed of last year.

Lead is a neurotoxin and poses particular risks to children. Chronic lead exposure can cause irreversible brain damage and other developmental disabilities in children. There is no safe level of exposure to the chemical. Nearly 100,000 pounds of lead was either treated or disposed of in landfills. Depending on the concentration, lead-contaminated materials can be placed in lined municipal landfills or in special facilities for hazardous waste.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.