toxic chemicals
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Businesses across Texas are due to submit their reports on toxin releases for 2012 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) next month and predictions are hard to make regarding this year's level of toxic chemicals released.

However, if figures have remained relatively stable since 2011 it would mean that Hutchinson County will have the largest volume of reportable chemicals released in the Texas Panhandle.

Its position at the top last year was largely attributed to the Agrium fertilizer facility that released ammonia equal to just about half of the total 5.4 million pounds of toxic chemicals reported by the county. The remainder was added by local refineries and chemical processing plants.

Ammonia is also the most common of the reportable toxic chemicals released in other counties, including Moore County, which occupied the second position last year. As much as two thirds of the ammonia released by businesses in Moore County came from Valero's McKee Refinery. The chemical is easily dispersed in the atmosphere and has a characteristic pungent smell. It is often used to produce fertilizers and in the pharmaceutical industry. Ammonia is also a common component of commercial cleaning products, the Amarillo Globe News reported.

Other counties in the region reported a very wide range of chemical releases. For example, while Potter County reported 918,968 pounds of toxic chemicals, Randall County only reported the release of 4,779 pounds last year. About 25 percent of the chemicals released in Potter County came from the Asarco copper refinery, the the EPA Toxic Release Inventory showed.

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A spokesman for Asarco was unavailable for comment but, according to the Amarillo Globe News, the company had previously explained that part of its waste, mostly copper compounds, was sent to facilities in Arizona, where remaining valuable elements were extracted and then sold to other businesses. What is left of the waste is released into the atmosphere or is injected in very deep underground wells.

Other companies that contributed to Potter County's toxic chemical releases included Tyson Fresh Meat, which mostly emitted ammonia, and Xcel Energy's Harrington Station, which released hydrogen flouride and hydrochloric acid. According to the EPA, exposure to either chemical in large amounts can cause respiratory irritation.

Xcel spokesman Wes Reeves commented that sometimes the word "release" can cause confusion because companies are not actually intentionally "venting" toxic materials into the air. He added that all facilities used by the company are fitted with control mechanisms and processes that ensure all safety and environmental requirements have been met.

Reeves also said that the majority of what Xcel listed in its report was bound in its coal ash and sold for industrial purposes. Its Harrington Station produces about 150,000 tons of the ash every year and it is sold for various purposes from road base to Portland cement and ice melt.