EPA deprives public of information on toxics

Requirements for reporting to toxic emissions are loosened despite the tracking program's success

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In a tag-team move that shortchanged the public’s knowledge of environmental hazards, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) loosened reporting requirements on the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). Congress created the TRI database in 1986 to allow the public to track toxic chemical emissions. The 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, and a subsequent West Virginia chemical plant leak inspired a system in which facilities discharging or disposing of at least 500 pounds of toxic chemicals per year were required to report totals to a public database. The system seemed to work for two decades. But despite American Chemistry Council data showing a near three-quarters reduction in toxic emissions since the program was enacted, in 2005 the EPA proposed raising the reporting threshold tenfold, while allowing facilities to report only every other year. The EPA said it was aiming to reduce the burden on industry to gather and report data on roughly 650 chemicals. The proposal met opposition from a dozen state attorneys general and health groups such as the American Lung Association and the Breast Cancer Fund. Even the American Petroleum Institute expressed doubts that the agency’s approach would achieve its goal of reducing the burden on industry. In addition to a critical letter from its own Science Advisory Board, the EPA received an overwhelming public response, with comments from 122,420 individuals and groups — all but 34 of whom expressed disapproval. Despite these objections, the EPA formally changed the rule in December 2006. The rule did stop short of the proposed 5,000-pound threshold, instead quadrupling the old reporting requirement from 500 to 2,000 pounds of annual toxic emissions. The Government Accountability Office found that more than 3,500 facilities would no longer have to report detailed information about their toxic chemical releases as a result. The EPA press office did not respond to a request for comment, but has argued that the changes will save industry $6 million a year in reduced monitoring costs, and will reduce the burden on small companies that contribute only a tiny share of the nation’s emissions.

Follow-up:
On February 14, 2007, members of the House and Senate drafted “valentine” legislation to the American public in the form of the Toxic Right-to-Know Prevention Act. The bill has not yet been voted on by either legislative body, so will likely need to be reintroduced in the 111th Congress. In its transition report for the Obama administration, the GAO said that the EPA should ensure information is “effectively collected and communicated to the public.”

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