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You Don’t Wanna Know

Proposed Changes to a Federal Toxic Inventory Could Leave Industry’s Neighbors In Dark

Jefferson Jackson Steele
STYRENES, HON: Chris Fick of MaryPIRG worries that proposed EPA changes may make it easier for companies like Hampden's Fox Industries (in the background) to pollute the surrounding neighborhood.

By Lacey Phillabaum | Posted 12/7/2005

Residents of Canton might like to know that there are more than 10 industrial facilities in their ZIP code, 21224, spewing industrial waste into the environment. Furthermore, they might be interested in learning that theirs was one of the most polluted ZIP codes in the United States in 2002—in the 80th percentile for cancer risks—according to environmental groups who have used data from the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-administered database of chemical use. The TRI, which was established by the EPA in 1986 as part of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, has been an invaluable tool for environmental watchdogs and concerned citizens who want to learn about environmental health hazards in their communities. But recently, the EPA has proposed changes to the TRI that will make less information available through the database and reduce the frequency with which polluters must report their toxic emissions. The proposed changes will make it harder for residents in communities like Canton to accurately weigh the risk pollutants pose to their health.

Every year most industrial facilities in the United States must tally and report their use of any of 650 chemicals on a list compiled by the EPA. Most companies that employ more than 10 people and generate more than 500 pounds of any of these chemicals as waste must file longer, detailed reports about their usage. The EPA reports this information in the form of the TRI, which can be searched according to a particular chemical, industrial facility, or by ZIP code. The rule change proposed in September would allow companies to report every two years instead of annually. The EPA also plans on doing away with detailed reporting for companies unless they generate 5,000 pounds of a particular chemical instead of 500.

“It is going to mean that a lot of toxic chemicals are going to be released, and we won’t get that information,” says Barbara Sattler, director of the Environmental Health Education Center of the University of Maryland School of Nursing. “Five hundred pounds of a heavy metal or persistent organic pollutant is a significant amount of pollution that we should know about.”

Her concern is echoed by Michael Harbut, a cancer researcher at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Michigan.

“We know that a number of the chemicals which are regulated by the TRI program cause cancer,” he says. “Estimates now are that 15 to 30 percent of cancers are from environmental causes. The data that will be lost by enacting these EPA proposals will probably result in a greater number of cancers.”

Though the TRI program doesn’t regulate emissions, it is widely credited with helping to decrease the industrial use of toxic chemicals because it names and shames top polluters.

The impetus for creating the inventory was the 1984 gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, that killed thousands. Americans looked around, saw Union Carbide plants in their neighborhoods, and became acutely aware of the fact that they knew little, if anything, about what chemical dangers lurked in their own neighborhoods. In response to such worries, Congress passed the Emergency Management and Community Right-to-Know Act in 1986. Experts say the TRI is the most comprehensive and frequently referenced source of public information on industrial facilities.

The EPA calls the changes it has proposed a “burden reduction” for reporting companies, and in its September announcement it noted that a third of the 24,000 facilities currently reporting would have to file less paperwork to report virtually the same information. The changes do not require Congress’ approval before they can be put into effect, but the EPA is soliciting public comment on the matter through Jan. 13.

Across the country and in Baltimore, data from the Toxics Release Inventory has fueled campaigns by activists and workers to cut emissions in the most polluted areas. In 2000, for example, TRI data was used by environmentalists in the battle over re-permitting at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point plant, which releases copper, nickel, and lead into the Patapsco River. (“Permit Snit,” April 19, 2000; “Unprecious Metals,” Nov. 22, 2000) The permit was renewed, but the amount of emissions the plant was allowed to release were reduced.

For environmental advocates, the toxic catalog is the ultimate chemical know-it-all. Chris Fick from the Maryland Public Interest Research Group (MaryPIRG) says he uses the data for annual reports on mercury, dioxin, soot, and smog in the state. MaryPIRG is releasing a report in December, partially based on TRI, about the state’s failure to protect children’s health by reducing pollution. TRI data is also the basis of a legislative proposal put together by the local environmental community to restrict pollutants coming from Maryland’s coal-fired power plants, which are a major source of air pollution.

Though not all of that information would be lost under the EPA proposal, Fick says that companies will pollute more before the public finds out about it.

“The EPA is essentially allowing the companies to release 10 times as much pollution before they are required to report, which we find appalling,” he says. “TRI data has been a critical tool for local communities for identifying where local pollution comes from.”

Canton residents, for example, wouldn’t have access to information from two of the 10 plants located in their area, nor about 13,000 chemicals releases, both accidental and permitted by the government, into the air, ground, and water. They also would not find out about the 30,000 transfers of toxic materials that are transported through their area.

Many public interest groups are apoplectic about the proposed changes. Labor unions (many of which support the TRI because it arms workers with information about toxic occupational hazards) and environmentalists held a press conference in Washington, D.C., Dec. 1 to emphasize the risks that diminished reporting poses to both public health and worker safety. While the press conference was happening, MaryPIRG hosted its own conference outside the Fox Industries plant in Hampden, which makes adhesives and sealants (and the oversized crabs on city streets). The company would be required to file fewer toxic-release reports under the EPA proposal. Fox Industries vice president Edye Fox Abrams, like many industry representatives, says the current reporting requirements are not unduly burdensome and that her company will do whatever the law requires.

Both the United Steelworkers Union and the AFL-CIO are opposed to the EPA’s suggested changes to the TRI, and on Nov. 10 six U.S. senators sent a letter to EPA staking out a position against the changes. “In light of the success of the program, we are troubled by EPA’s notification to Congress that the Agency intends to initiate a rulemaking to modify the frequency of TRI reporting from annual to biennial,” the senators wrote.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s office had no comment on the EPA proposal, but U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin (D), whose district includes the 21224 ZIP code, placed the blame for the proposed changes squarely on the White House.

“The Bush Administration has a disturbing record on environmental protection, so their proposal to ease the requirements of the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory is immediately suspect,” he commented in a written statement. “The federal reporting requirements for toxic releases should be driven by scientific risk assessment, not White House policy mandates to ease the regulation of polluters.”

If the EPA changes are approved, five of 45 industrial facilities in Baltimore would fall below the reporting threshold and no longer have to submit detailed emissions data at all. Details from 17 percent of industrial facilities in Maryland would be completely lost, as well, according to the National Environmental Trust. That loss would be larger than in any other state except Nevada and Utah.

Tom Natan, a chemical engineer who is the research director for the National Environmental Trust in Washington, D.C., says that data on 69 dangerous chemicals, including formaldehyde and acrylamide (a known carcinogen and suspected neurotoxin), could be seriously underreported in Maryland.

In addition, groups opposed to the changes point out that TRI data is important for use in emergency management. “For a firefighter, the online information is the fastest way to find out what is on-site,” Natan says. “We talk to emergency responders who used the data to find out what chemicals might be in the water in Louisiana.”

George Harman, manager of the Environmental Assessments and Standards Program for the Maryland Department of the Environment, says the benefit of collecting TRI data must be weighed against the cost to small businesses that manage smaller quantities of chemicals. Harman says that businesses rarely complain about TRI paperwork these days, and his office receives a few inquiries per month about the TRI from concerned citizens. But the Maryland Department of the Environment, he says, has already determined that permitted pollutants, whether they are reported or not, will not have any effect on the environment.

“When we issue permits to these companies, all of their releases must meet specific concentration levels that are not believed to have adverse effects,” Harman says. “We regulate on the emissions concentration. And the annual release total, while it may sometimes look kind of bad, is indeed a value that might be thoroughly not causing any problems at all.”

Harman’s statement shocked the University of Maryland’s Sattler: “You are kidding!” she said when told what he implied. “This is fantastical information! I would have no qualms in saying that the current level of law for what we allow for air pollution is not a healthy level. . . . If they think we are doing fine and dandy with our current standards and regulations, that is sad commentary from an environmental protection agency.”

Which makes the TRI all the more important. Sattler says it has been a potent tool for local activists and communities when they are fighting for change. Perhaps too potent.

“Here we have an administration that is saying, ‘Oh, no, no, we don’t want you to have this information anymore,’” she says. What they really don’t want, she continues, is “a citizenry challenging the profligate pollution coming out our smokestacks and into the air and water.”

The Toxics Release Inventory can be searched by ZIP code.

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