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Home > SPJ News > EPA seeks to cut off information about pollution

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EPA seeks to cut off information about pollution

FOI ALERT
11/4/2005


Contact:
Robert Leger
, Freedom of Information Committee, (417) 836-1113 or rleger@spj.org

The issue:

The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing two changes that would cut the legs out from under a premier community right-to-know law, the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). The annual TRI informs communities about the amounts of toxic chemicals released into the air, water and land. The information empowers citizens to press companies to reduce pollution. In many ways, openly available information is a greater force than regulation for protecting public health.

EPA, however, is seeking to neuter the program. It already has proposed a rule change that would raise the threshold for reporting the details on of toxic releases by 10 times. And it informed Congress that it intends to will propose requiring the reports every other year, instead of the current annual reports.

The details:

REPORTING THRESHOLDS: Companies report pollution in one of two ways. Depending on the type of chemical and the amount released, a very small number of facilities are permitted to use a short report called the Form A, which lists only the name of the chemical and no other details. Most facilities are required to file a full Form R, which lists the chemical, how much was released and where it went (air, water, land.)

Currently, releases and disposals of persistent bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs), like lead and mercury, must always be reported on Form R. PBTs are dangerous even in small quantities because they are toxic, persist in the environment and build up in people’s bodies.

EPA now wants to let companies report the handling of 500 pounds or less of PBTs on the short form (as long as the PBTs are not released directly into the environment). Dioxin, however, would still have to be reported on the long form regardless of the amount.

EPA also wants to raise the threshold for full reporting on non-PBT chemicals from 500 pounds to 5,000 pounds. EPA says releases between 500 and 5,000 pounds account for no more than 2 percent of the waste tracked under TRI. While that may be true, the argument understates the impact on communities. If your neighborhood is downwind from a toxic release, several thousand pounds is significant.

Under this rule change, almost 4,000 facilities would no longer have to report details of their toxic pollution, according to OMB Watch. More than one-fourth of the current 80,170 Form Rs would be eligible for Form A reporting. And 2,364 communities would be denied details on half of the chemicals being released in their area.

Or to bring it down to a practical matter: A company that is releasing 2,000 pounds of benzene, a known human carcinogen, currently must report details on emissions. The community is fully informed. Under the proposed change, this company could increase its releases by 500 pounds a year and not have to report that detail until the amount rose over 5,000 pounds. The community would be kept in the dark about these increases for seven years.

REPORTING FREQUENCY: EPA told Congress it wants to require TRI reports every other year, a significant shift from the current annual reporting requirements. EPA justifies this change by saying that chemical releases are leveling off and annual reporting is no longer important.

Again, EPA is ignoring what happens in individual communities. Amounts of a single chemical at a single plant can vary greatly from year to year. Knowledge of these fluctuations is important to citizens seeking a safer environment. They’re important details for any news story about chemical releases in your area.

In addition, every year when EPA releases the latest TRI data, reporters have an opportunity to highlight the top polluters in the city, county or state. Moving to a biannual system would cut in half the opportunity to highlight pollution problems and inform the public about an area’s top polluters.

This change would also result in less useful information. With less frequent reporting the public would be forced to rely on old data for longer periods of time. Currently, the latest data available is from 2003. If biennial reporting were in effect, given the length of time EPA takes to process TRI data, the 2003 data would still be the latest information available in the first half of 2007.

What you can do:

* Write news stories informing your local community about these proposed changes, which would affect its ability to monitor pollution (George Sorvalis of OMB Watch — (202)234-8494 or gsorvalis@ombwatch.org — has state-specific and zip-code specific statistics on how much information companies would be allowed to conceal from the public under the proposed changes.) Or editorialize against this proposal, showing how EPA is using national, aggregate data to neuter a program designed to empower local communities. Let readers/viewers/listeners know how they can object to the changes (see below).

* Respond to the EPA comment period, which runs through Dec. 5, 2005. The threshold changes are listed as Docket TRI-2005-0073. You can also use the opportunity to object to the change in frequency. Comments may be posted on line at www.regulations.gov or www.epa.gov/edocket (This is EPA’s preferred method). Comments also can be emailed to oei.docket@epa.gov, faxed to 202-566-0741 or mailed to Office of Environmental Information (OEI) Docket, Environmental Protection Agency, Mail Code: 28221T, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW., Washington, DC 20460. Attention Docket ID No. TRI–2005–0073.

* The EPA’s rationale for the changes and the full text of the proposed rule can be found at www.epa.gov/tri/.

* Additional information skeptical of the changes is available from OMB Watch, its affiliated Right to Know Network and the Society of Environmental Journalists.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

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