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Environmental Right-to-Know Under Attack

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Tell EPA you are opposed to its plan to roll back your right-to-know about toxic pollution. The official public comment period closes Dec= 5, 2005.

A recent EPA proposal to roll back the country’s flagship environmental right-to-know program continues a pattern under the Bush administration of putting corporate interests over public health and safety and secrecy over transparency and accountability.

Nearly 20 years ago, Congress established the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) to publicly disclose the amount of toxic pollution released into our communities by industrial facilities. This disclosure has enabled environmental groups, the press, and concerned citizens to expose toxic dangers and hold facilities accountable to make upgrades and improve public health.

Since the program’s inception in 1988, releases of the original 299 chemicals tracked by TRI have plummeted nearly 60 percent, giving us far cleaner air, water and soil. As new chemicals have been added to the inventory over the years, releases of those chemicals have also declined.

Nonetheless, in the face of this unqualified success, the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans on Sept. 21 to dim the lights on TRI. Specifically, the agency proposed to exempt thousands of facilities from full reporting of their toxic releases and switch from annual reporting to biennial reporting, meaning no data would be collected and disclosed for off years.

This move happens as new toxic dangers have emerged. For instance, the 2003 TRI data (the most recent data available) indicates an 11 percent increase from 2002 in persistent bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs), a class of chemicals which includes such infamous poisons as lead, mercury and dioxin – long considered among the most dangerous chemicals to human health. Because they require long periods of time to break down, these toxins can build up in people’s bodies and cause debilitating disease and even death.

The current EPA leadership, however, seems more concerned with sparing companies from having to report their releases than with protecting the public. Currently, facilities that produce less than 500 pounds of a TRI chemical annually are permitted to use the program’s “short form,” which does not require a complete accounting of toxic releases. The agency has proposed increasing this loophole tenfold, raising the threshold to 5,000 pounds. By enlarging the short-form loophole, the agency would let thousands of facilities off the hook for reporting on the quantity and destination (air, water or soil) of their toxic releases.

With this change, the agency has also proposed to allow facilities to report small quantities of PBTs using the short form. Long-standing EPA policy requires full reporting of all releases of PBTs – no matter the quantity – because they accumulate over time and scientific evidence has shown that even small exposures are dangerous, especially to children. The proposal to lift this policy seems especially ill-advised considering the recent increase in PBT releases.

Likewise, EPA’s proposal to switch to biennial reporting would greatly undermine the TRI program. This action would mean that for entire years we would have no data on the country’s toxic releases. Excessive releases in off years would be impossible to detect, while adverse trends would take longer to spot and address. This, in turn, would reduce public pressure on facilities to make improvements, as well as on government to hold facilities accountable, putting public health and safety at greater risk.

Unfortunately, this seems to be of little concern to the Bush administration. The administration has rolled back standards for toxic pollution, including standards for the hard-rock mining industry, the nation’s largest toxic polluter, and coal-fired power plants, which contaminate our air with emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury. A public in the dark about toxic pollution would seem to suit the administration’s political interests.

EPA contends its plan is just a matter of dollars and cents: The agency says it would save $2 million each year it skips TRI reporting, while savings to industry would be many times more. Yet this justification has a couple of problems. First, it subverts the long-standing principle that corporations should take responsibility for their pollution and internalize costs—through mitigation initiatives like TRI—rather than putting them off on the public. And second, it ignores the enormous benefits that have been achieved for public health and safety (which far exceed the costs).

Thousands of lives have been saved as a result of reductions in toxic releases spurred by TRI, not to mention many millions in health care costs. This is a proven model that should be expanded. Instead, EPA stands on the verge of tearing it down.

Sean Moulton is the senior information policy analyst at OMB Watch, a research and advocacy organization that promotes open and accountable government. Reece Rushing is associate director for regulatory policy at the Center for American Progress

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