PANNA: Public Right to Know About Toxics is Under Attack

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Public Right to Know About Toxics is Under Attack
January 3, 2006

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to radically cut back on the amount of information disclosed to the public about toxic chemicals used in their communities. The federal Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) currently requires companies to publicly disclose information about certain toxic chemicals they are releasing into the air, land, and water. EPA's proposed changes would allow corporations to dump more toxic chemicals without disclosure, and to update the public less frequently on toxic releases.

The Washington Post reports, "...analysis of the rule's effect showed that 922 of the nation's more than 33,000 residential Zip codes would lose 100 percent of detailed pollution data if companies migrated to the short form."

The Toxics Release Inventory is an invaluable resource for community members working to clean up their neighborhoods and researching why they may be getting sick. The TRI was created following a massive leak of highly toxic gas from a pesticide plant that killed at least 15,000 nearby residents in Bhopal, India in 1984. Alarmed community members and experts in the U.S. demanded to know exactly which chemicals they were being exposed to in their own cities and towns. Despite fierce opposition from chemical companies and the Reagan Administration, citizens convinced Congress to pass the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act in 1985, which includes the TRI provisions that require companies to report releases of certain toxic chemicals. EPA then publishes this information in an accessible online database.

Data collected through the TRI program have served as a cornerstone of community efforts to fight pollution in their backyards as well as industry programs to reduce toxic emissions. In the city of Richmond, California, for example, community environmental groups used TRI data as one of their sources to identify the Chevron oil refinery as the number one polluter in the city. Alarmed citizens used their findings to pressure Chevron to close down older portions of the plant and install new equipment to reduce toxic releases. "The [TRI] information is very powerful in raising the community's awareness and in getting them involved.The company said that they are not a problem, but the information enables us to show that there is a concern," noted Henry Clark, Executive Director of Richmond's West County Toxics Coalition.

EPA is now proposing to weaken this highly successful and popular TRI program with three changes that will endanger public health and the environment throughout the country and internationally. These changes will:

  • Cut this successful program in half by eliminating every other year of reporting;
  • Allow companies to release ten times more toxins than currently allowed before having to report how much pollution they produce and release;
  • Permit facilities to hide information on low volumes of persistent bioacculuative toxins (PBTs), which are dangerous even in very small quantities. PBTs are chemicals that are toxic, persist in the environment, travel long distances through air and water currents, and build up in through the food chain and in people's bodies.

These changes would drastically reduce the number of facilities that are required to report their toxic releases--meaning that fewer communities will be able to use TRI data to track chemicals that could be affecting their health. Less frequent reporting would make obtaining up-to-date information and tracking trends more difficult for the public.

The TRI web site currently provides everyone with access to the Internet with detailed data on exactly where certain toxic chemicals are being used, and how they are disposed. Neighbors can view data on the toxics used in a factory nearby, or levels of toxic pollution dumped in particular postal codes, or at the county, state, regional or national level. The TRI web site can also generate maps that identify the most toxic counties in the state or nation, and what industries are producing and emitting these toxins.

Linking toxics release information with census data has allowed environmental justice researchers to document how minorities and low-income people are disproportionately affected by toxic pollution. Environmental justice groups in Louisiana, for example, have used the TRI database to reveal the alarmingly high concentration of industrial toxic releases in African-American communities along the Mississippi River corridor known as "Cancer Alley." Growing public knowledge of toxics released in this region has allowed local environmental groups to sound the alarm about the need to monitor and cleanup toxic substances in the residue of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

EPA is accepting public comments on the proposed reporting cutbacks until January 13th. Since the agency announced plans to weaken TRI pollution reporting on September 21st, hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals have voiced their opposition to the proposed cutbacks. During a "TRI Day of Action" in December 2005, doctors, first responders, workers and public officials spoke out against the EPA plans at a national press event.

As a result of this coordinated effort, opposition to the TRI rollback is gaining traction in Congress, the media and among the general public. Several U.S. Senators, including Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and John McCain (R-AZ), sent a letter to EPA expressing their concern over the proposals. More than 100 TRI stories have appeared in national and regional newspapers, including ten newspaper editorials against the proposals. The public watchdog organization OMB Watch has tracked more than 15,000 official public comments sent to EPA against the proposals.

Take action: You can help keep TRI strong and up-to-date. Tell EPA not to weaken the public's right to know and to maintain the TRI in its current form as a vital source of critical environmental health data.

To send your comment on TRI to the EPA, go to our PAN Action Alert.

For more information, see http://www.ombwatch.org/article/archive/97

Sources:
Toxics Release Inventory Program, U.S. EPA. 2003. How Are the Toxics Release Inventory Data Used? Government, Business, Academic, and Citizen Uses. EPA-260-R-002-004 May, 2003. http://www.epa.gov/tri/guide_docs/2003_datausepaper.pdf

OMB Watch. 2005. "More than 15,000 People (and Counting) Oppose Toxics Release Inventory Changes" in Community Right-to-Know eUpdate, November / December 2005.

Orum, Paul. 1990. "Citizens Target Giant Refinery." Interview with Henry Clark in 1990 October Working Notes Newsletter
http://www.crtk.org/library-newsletters-2.cfm?date=1990-10-01+00:00:00&docID=519

Skrzycki, Cindy "Chemical-Data Plan Catalyzes Opposition" Washington Post 1/3/06. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/02/AR2006010201730.html


Contact: PANNA



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