The federal government wants to let chemical facilities publicly report
their toxic releases only every other year — making the off years a potential
open season for toxins. The feds also want to save chemical facilities time
and money by allowing them to reveal much less information about their toxic
Under the plan, 24,000 chemical facilities would save 164,000 hours of labor costs
annually. That would strengthen profits, but what about the citizens? Well, they
don't figure much into the equation.
The Environmental Protection Agency is poised to water down a key right-to-know
law. At issue is the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory, a public database of the
chemical industry's use and disposal of hazardous substances.
Every year, certain facilities must file TRI reports if they employ 10 or more
people and process at least one of 667 dangerous chemicals. The TRI data, which
are posted on the Web (at www.epa.gov/triexplorer/), inform citizens of the
chemical hazards around them.
Because of corporate pressure, however, the EPA wants to raise the threshold
for reporting certain chemical waste from 500 pounds annually to 5,000 pounds.
Yes, that is, indeed, a tenfold increase.
The EPA further proposes to halve the frequency and coverage of TRI reports.
Now, the reports must be filed annually. The EPA proposal would allow reports
covering the previous year to be filed once every other year. Unscrupulous companies
(which do exist) could willfully pollute without detection in the off years.
And the EPA proposes a loophole for reporting persistent bioaccumulative toxins
— or PBTs — such as lead, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls,
which are dangerous even in minuscule quantities. Those companies that store
less than 500 pounds of these chemical and release none would not have to tell
the public about their toxins.
Twenty facilities in Boulder County file TRI reports. If the rule changes take
effect, we'll lose chemical data on six — or 30 percent — of them.
If the watered-down rules had been in effect in 2003 (the latest year for which
data have been compiled) Boulder County citizens would not have had data about
these locally processed chemicals:
• 4,820 pounds of chromium compounds, which are known human carcinogens.
• 2,437 pounds of nickel, a suspected carcinogen.
• 1,101 pounds of toxic zinc compounds.
• And three facilities' use of lead, mercury and benzo(g,h,i)perylene,
In Denver, officials estimate that the new TRI rules would eliminate one-fourth
of the data about local chemical releases and disposal. Nationwide, 2,300 communities
would lose more than half of the detailed data about toxic pollution in their
neighborhoods, according to OMB Watch, a nonprofit group promoting government
During the off years, of course, all communities would lose 100 percent of
the detailed data.
The EPA argues that the information at stake represents a small portion of
that reported under the TRI, and that the reduction is a reasonable trade for
cutting the financial burden on chemical facilities.
The public-comment period on the rules change has ended, and Congress may be
the only obstacle to implementation. Several key lawmakers, including Republican
Sen. John McCain, have objected in writing to the EPA. They wrote, "We
are unaware of any compelling reason the United States should reduce the public's
information about the most dangerous class of chemicals."
Hear, hear. Nationwide, the adverse publicity of the TRI reports induced a
42-percent reduction in toxic-chemical releases and disposal in the last six
The TRI changes would hit other communities harder than Boulder, which has
relatively few large chemical facilities and which has a strong environmental
ethic. John Tayer, spokesman for Roche Colorado, whose Boulder plant released
or disposed of 134,705 pounds of toxins in 2003, said Roche does not plan to
reduce its reporting, regardless of the TRI change.
"We have a relationship that we want to maintain with the public,"
he said. Other cities won't be so lucky. As the EPA's own analyses show, the
increased secrecy will disproportionately affect ethnic minorities and the poor.
Today is the beginning of Sunshine Week, which coincides with James Madison's
birthday. It's a fine time to emphasize that government secrecy isn't just undemocratic.
It can be poison.
Clint Talbott is a Daily Camera columnist.