Americans soon could be getting less information about toxic chemicals
released into the environment.
Under a proposal from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, industrial
companies would be freed from reporting most chemical releases of less than
5,000 pounds, up from 500 pounds under current law. Factories, power plants,
refineries and other sources of pollution also would need to report their releases
only every other year instead of annually.
A top agency official said the changes would reduce the regulatory burden on
industries while giving the EPA more time to review the data for trends, such
as whether releases of a specific chemical are on the rise or if a certain industry
or factory is having problems.
"We spend so much time receiving forms and entering the data that we don't
have enough time to analyze it," Kimberly Nelson, the EPA's assistant administrator
for environmental information, said in an interview.
Critics of the plan say it would weaken a 1986 law that by all accounts has
nudged companies to curb pollution by giving the public more information about
chemical releases. Congress created the Toxics Release Inventory in response
to a chemical catastrophe at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, that killed
more than 2,000 people.
The critics note that people and groups already perform their own analyses
of the EPA's data. Cutting the amount of information provided and releasing
it less frequently would make it more difficult to track some companies and
determine pollution trends, they said.
"Now it's companies first and communities last," said Sean Moulton,
a policy analyst with OMB Watch, a Washington-based advocacy group. "I
can't really believe they want to do this."
The EPA's own Web site touts the chemical inventory's benefits, boasting that
"communities have more power to hold companies accountable and make informed
decisions about how toxic chemicals are managed." The agency puts the data
on its Web site, and with a few clicks of a computer mouse, anyone can find
information about specific industries and plants or about 650 different chemicals.
The data can be ranked nationwide or by state, county, city and ZIP code.
When residents in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood wanted to know if metallic-tasting
smoke churning through the streets was dangerous, they turned to the EPA's database
What they found while scrolling through the list of polluters alarmed them:
The H. Kramer and Co. smelter at 21st and Throop Streets is the largest source
of airborne lead in the Chicago area.
Organized into a small but tenacious group, the plant's neighbors started badgering
elected officials and environmental regulators, prompting a state investigation
that found high levels of lead in several backyards.
While H. Kramer denies it is responsible for lead in the neighborhood, the
company has agreed to clean up its property and reduce its emissions.
"What the EPA is talking about is really disturbing," said Karen
Sheets, spokeswoman for the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization.
In Colorado, researchers used the database to reveal that chemical releases
are more concentrated in the Rocky Mountain states than in the country as a
A Brush Wellman alloy factory outside Toledo, Ohio, cut emissions of beryllium,
a toxic metal, after environmental groups used the EPA inventory to highlight
the company's releases. A similar campaign led a Rohm and Haas chemical plant
near Cincinnati to reduce airborne chloromethane, which the EPA considers a
The annual reports of chemical releases are two years old by the time the information
is made public. Critics of the proposed changes say moving the reports to once
every other year would make it more difficult to pressure industries to keep
The vast majority of chemical releases still would be made public, Nelson said.
For instance, the proposal would affect only 3 percent of the nationwide emissions
of trichloroethylene, a cancer-causing chemical known as TCE.
For some chemicals, though, the number of companies required to report releases
would drop significantly, meaning information about some polluters would not
be available to nearby communities. Nearly half of the companies that reported
TCE emissions during 2003 no longer would be required to do so, according to
a Tribune review of the database.
"I thought the idea was to give people more information, not less, about
factories in their cities and neighborhoods," said Sandy Buchanan, executive
director of Ohio Citizen Action.
Under the 1986 law that created the chemical inventory, the EPA must inform
Congress of proposed changes at least a year in advance. The rules would take
effect unless challenged by lawmakers or the public.
Business groups are lining up behind the change. "This sensible update will
provide relief to small manufacturers and free up resources for addressing critical
environmental priorities," John Engler, president of the National Association
of Manufacturers, said in a statement.