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Hiding Behind Pollution and Paperwork

While claiming to relieve polluting companies of paperwork, a new EPA plan will let polluters off the hook in reporting their toxic emissions.
 
 
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The government has plans to wipe out thousands of pounds of industrial pollution -- on paper, anyway.

The Environmental Protection Agency is advancing substantial rule changes aimed at freeing corporations from the "burden" of reporting toxic emissions. But environmentalists fear the new rules would saddle communities with more industrial waste by shielding polluters from public scrutiny.

The proposal, now up for public comment, would shrink the main government pollution database, known as the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), by enabling companies to report less information, less frequently.

Officials have promoted the reforms as a type of "relief" for small businesses that handle toxic materials. But according to the opposition, the proposed rules would undermine a major public resource for holding polluters accountable and safeguarding public health.

For instance, the TRI has helped activists mobilize communities downwind from Mittal Steel Company in Cleveland, Ohio. From 2003 to 2004, the factory tripled its reported air emissions of toxic chemicals, including hydrochloric acid and various metals -- substances that neighbors link to foul odors and health problems. Armed with the company's own data, residents have tested neighborhoods for contaminants that match the plant's pollution record and pushed Mittal to follow other Ohio facilities in implementing pollution-reduction technology.

"We do direct pressure on polluters to make changes in their operation and to generally go beyond what the laws would require them to do in pollution prevention," said Sandy Buchannan, executive director of the grassroots group Ohio Citizen Action, "so the TRI is a really critical tool."

Established two decades ago under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, the TRI tracks about 650 chemicals and more than 20,000 facilities, from chemical manufacturers to food processors. Information about the amount, type, storage and disposal of toxic waste has enabled communities to investigate local facilities and shaped legislation and advocacy campaigns. Since the current system was finalized in 1998, toxic releases and disposals have dropped by nearly 3 billion pounds, or over 40 percent.

The rule changes would let more companies take advantage of a simplified reporting form, which documents only the name -- not quantity -- of a toxin. Current rules generally mandate more detailed reporting for a TRI chemical if total annual emissions exceed 500 pounds. The proposed rules would bump that threshold to 5,000 pounds. For an especially hazardous category of chemicals, including mercury, the proposal would eliminate detailed reporting requirements for facilities that handle 500 pounds or less of these substances and do not release them directly into the environment.

The EPA estimates that the relaxed requirements would affect about one-third of reporting facilities, but maintain information on 99 percent of pollution- all while saving companies from paperwork. In a related initiative, the EPA has announced plans to reduce the reporting schedule from yearly to every other year.

The industry association American Chemistry Council endorses the proposed reforms as a way to increase efficiency. Spokesperson Tiffany Harrington said the chemical industry is already "one of the most regulated industries in the world," and the changes would result in "minimal impact to public information."

Advocacy groups counter that the real cost of industry's "savings" would weigh heavily on communities.

"If any kind of industrial company is putting out chemicals, the public has a right to know what those are, especially when the effects can be so local," said Moira Chapin, a field organizer for the public interest group Environment California, which stands to lose data for nearly 300 facilities across the state under the EPA proposal.

According to an analysis released last week by the advocacy organization National Environmental Trust (NET), more than 920 communities would lose all numerical data on local pollution under the proposed rule. More than 1,600 communities would lose at least half of the amount of data currently available.

NET also found that the companies standing to benefit from reporting reductions tend to release more of their waste directly into the environment, as opposed to using waste-management or pollution-reduction methods.

"By providing less information," NET Director of Research Thomas Natan told The NewStandard, "EPA is telling people that its concerns, or the concerns of the business community, are more important than theirs."

Community groups like Ohio Citizen Action warn that the rule changes would weaken grassroots campaigns.

With a two-year gap between reports, Buchannan said, "neighbors are not going to be able to tell whether the company is making a change that they promised to make."

Dismissing the EPA's notion of "small" polluters, Buchannan argued, "Chemicals don't get on a TRI for reporting unless they're dangerous to public health.... And if you live next door to it, it doesn't matter whether it's, you know, a giant chemical company or a smaller company."

Besides providing activists with statistical muscle, the TRI also affects environmental policy decisions. Washington State's Department of Ecology has applied TRI data in designing plans to reduce pollution, which, since 1995, have helped cut toxic releases and disposals by roughly 50 percent.

Idell Hansen, director of the state's Hazardous Waste and Toxics Reduction program, noted that the proposed reporting threshold does not distinguish between various types of toxins. She pointed out that new guidelines ignore, for example, that "500 pounds of one chemical might have the same toxicity as 500,000 pounds of another chemical." Hansen predicted that if ranked according to toxicity, several of the state's most hazardous facilities "would be kicked out [of TRI] completely."

The integrity of pollution data is also a health and safety issue for workers. Mechanic and union activist Richard Prete used TRI data during the 1990s to investigate a link between health problems among workers and chlorine emissions at his plant, Kaiser Aluminum in Washington. The management eventually agreed to revamp the facility's technology and nearly eliminated chlorine exposure hazards within a few years.

Prete said the TRI provided employees information that is "not normally available to workers on the floor at any company."

In occupational medicine, the TRI fuels the research of physicians like Michael Harbut of Michigan's Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, who studies how toxic exposures influence workers' risks for disease. "We should be getting more information about these things, rather than getting less," Dr. Harbut told TNS.

Activists say that weakening the TRI would punctuate the Bush administration's broader effort to block regulatory bodies from interfering with business interests.

Critics suspect that government calculations of the "regulatory burden" are more a function of politics than hard data. For instance, while the White House Office of Management and Budget estimates that the most extensive TRI form requires 47.1 hours to complete, the EPA projects the form takes 6.7 hours.

According to Sean Moulton, a senior policy analyst with the government accountability group OMB Watch, responsibility -- rather than bureaucracy -- is the burden borne by polluters. "There seems to be very little corroborating data that the burden is an actual problem," Moulton said, "and a lot of evidence that demonstrates that the public accountability created by the TRI program is a problem for them."

Moulton remarked that the irony of the proposed rollbacks is that, while it may be the target of an anti-regulatory political climate, the TRI does not actually regulate industry; instead, it encourages self-regulation to avoid embarrassment.

Once companies are forced to come clean about their pollution, he said, "there's not even a requirement to do anything. There's just a public pressure that comes to bear when you're among the worst facilities in the country."

Michelle Chen writes, works and plays in New York City. She is a staff writer for The NewStandard , a reader-funded, nonprofit daily news site.