The U.S. industrial sector is responsible for nearly a quarter of domestic greenhouse gas emissions, alongside significant toxic releases that are harmful to public health. It is also a major user of fossil fuels, representing nearly a third of U.S. methane gas consumption in 2022.
A new study commissioned by the Sierra Club, "Coming Clean on Industrial Emissions: Challenges, Inequities, and Opportunities in U.S. Steel, Aluminum, Cement, and Metcoke", takes an in-depth look at heavy manufacturing facilities around the country. At the heart of the report is a new database that examines every domestic facility in four heavy industries that were in operation in 2020: 100 facilities that produced primary iron and steel, 12 merchant facilities that produced metallurgical coke for the iron and steel industry, 96 facilities that produced cement, and 7 that produced primary aluminum.
The profile for each facility includes greenhouse gas emissions and the local communities’ exposure to air, land, and water pollution. The study also looks at employment figures at each facility to show its current economic impact on the local community and underscore the importance of investments that would both employ the community while reducing pollution. In addition, the accompanying report outlines where the publicly available resources on toxic pollution lack precision. This promises to pinpoint areas for the U.S. government to intensify monitoring and ensure public awareness of the social costs of pollution.
The goal of this research is to support public engagement with industry and government around policies to transform American manufacturing to serve a more sustainable economy, while improving climate and public health impacts.
The iron, steel, cement, aluminum, and metallurgical coke industries are responsible for directly releasing approximately 134 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from their facilities, which is comparable to emissions from 36 coal-fired power plants in one year. These industries emit additional greenhouse gas emissions through their consumption of electricity coming from dirty sources.
Toxic pollutants emitted from these facilities include but are not limited to sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and particulate matter (PM). These have far-reaching harmful effects on land, water, wildlife, and people. The elimination of PM emissions and its precursors from these industries alone would avoid 1,250 to 2,830 deaths in the United States annually, alongside meaningfully reducing chronic and acute illnesses.
The carbon- and pollution-intensity of individual facilities vary widely within and between the four studied industries. This suggests opportunities to improve climate and public health impacts from these sources with existing policies, technologies, and processes, particularly with federal investments made available by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.
These industries employ approximately 100,000 workers. The sourcing, transporting, and processing of inputs for these facilities support additional workers in other industries and locations. Materials produced from these facilities also form the bedrock of many economic activities (construction, auto manufacturing, aerospace, and more) that support our daily lives.
Clean manufacturing policies should also consider increasing domestic capacity and keeping as many of these jobs as possible — and even adding new manufacturing jobs — as a central goal alongside decarbonizing and abating toxic pollution from these industries.
However, newly-created manufacturing jobs in these industries tend to require higher levels of education, which can serve as a barrier to entry for legacy manufacturing workers. Policies that retrain existing workers and create programs targeting legacy manufacturing and energy workers are particularly important for a just transition.
Environmental Justice Concerns
The cost of industrial pollution from heavy manufacturing is disproportionately borne by fenceline communities. People living near metallurgical coke and steel facilities suffer from higher than average air toxics cancer risk. People of color make up the majority of communities near these sources, and face other harms such as lower rates of high school graduation and higher unemployment than the national average.
Across the study, the majority of facilities are located in low-income communities and communities already overburdened by fine particulate pollution.
Opportunities and Needs
Many emerging and upcoming technologies present opportunities to make further advances in both emissions reduction from, and pollution abatement of, the heavy manufacturing sectors covered in the study. Significant work and research to-date have identified where improvements must take place in the manufacturing process for these industries to achieve near-zero emissions. However, further investment in research and development are essential as no emerging pathways currently bring the carbon emissions down to zero.
Despite these harms, reliable data about the pollution from these sectors is lacking. Facilities reporting emissions to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are allowed to use a range of methods to measure their releases of carbon and toxic pollutants that carry varying degrees of uncertainty. The inconsistency and imprecision that result from the status quo approach to tracking pollution prevent effective community engagement with industry on pollution abatement - and also stymies policymaking.