Thousands of companies throughout the nation, including many in the Los Angeles region, would no longer have to provide the public with details of toxic chemicals they release into the environment under a Bush administration proposal to streamline the nation's environmental right-to-know law.
For nearly 20 years, the national Toxics Release Inventory has allowed people to access detailed data about chemicals that are used and released in their neighborhoods. In about 9,000 communities, the annual reports identify which industrial plants emit the most toxic substances, whether their emissions are increasing and what compounds may be contaminating their air and water.
We need more information, not less.
Thomas Estabrook, who manages a project at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell that trains hazardous-waste workers
Seeking to ease the financial burden on industry, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed eliminating some requirements for smaller facilities that must monitor their emissions and file the complex annual reports. The EPA will make a final decision on the proposal next year, after a public comment period.
Under the agency's proposal, 922 communities would lose all information from the inventory detailing emissions, according to a report released Thursday by the environmental group National Environmental Trust.
Los Angeles, Santa Ana, Santa Fe Springs, Compton, South Gate, Ontario and Fontana would each lose data from at least half a dozen industrial plants, according to a statewide analysis by another group, Environment California.
Top EPA officials laud the inventory program as an essential public tool but say its reporting requirements have doubled over the last decade, with U.S. industry now spending $650 million a year to comply.
Kim Nelson, an assistant administrator at the EPA, said the companies that would benefit from the proposal are "tiny, tiny businesses, mom-and-pop shops operating on Main Street, that, in an aggregate, amount to less than 1% of the emissions in this country."
But according to the agency's electronic inventory, many of the facilities are near residential areas, in communities with large low-income or minority populations. Many are owned by large corporations, including Pepsi Bottling Group in Buena Park, Clorox Products in Los Angeles, Raytheon in Goleta, U.S. Gypsum Co. in Santa Fe Springs and Foamex in the Bay Area city of San Leandro.
Under existing rules, facilities that release 500 or more pounds of toxic substances each year must reveal how much of each chemical is emitted into the air, discharged into waterways and taken to landfills or other disposal sites.
But under the EPA proposal, unveiled in September, that threshold would be raised to 5,000 pounds. The smaller emitters would be required only to list chemical names without any data on environmental releases, such as amounts discharged into the air. Among the industries that could benefit are metal-plating plants, electronics firms, pharmaceutical companies, foam manufacturers, food processors and petrochemical and oil facilities.
Community activists and experts on hazardous materials assembled by the National Environmental Trust on Thursday for a news conference said eliminating data from small plants would weaken a powerful tool that communities use to make people aware of risks and persuade businesses to reduce their chemical use.
"We need more information, not less," said Thomas Estabrook, who manages a project at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell that trains hazardous-waste workers.
"In individual neighborhoods, the difference between 500 pounds and 5,000 pounds is significant," said Idell Hansen, Washington state's director of hazardous waste and toxics reduction.
Mike Walls, managing director of the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, said the proposal "is likely to help smaller facilities," many of which hire costly consultants to monitor their chemical releases so they can file the reports. But, he said, "it will not diminish the quality or utility of the data available to the public" because all plants with large emissions must still file details, and even smaller plants must identify chemicals used.
Walls said the chemical industry supports the toxic inventory program and has reduced emissions from its facilities 75% since it was established.
"But if we can find a way of doing things better, of making government work better, why shouldn't we take those steps? We think EPA has been on the right track in discussing burden reduction in the TRI program," he said.
Congress established the Toxics Release Inventory in 1986, after a leak from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984 killed thousands of nearby residents who were unaware that potentially deadly chemicals were used at the facility. The 21st anniversary of that disaster is today.
The U.S. inventory does not chronicle chemical spills or accidents, only the ongoing routine use and release of hundreds of hazardous compounds, including mercury, benzene, asbestos and cyanide. It does not include any information on the health risks or what concentrations people are actually exposed to. But publicity about emissions has inspired many U.S. companies to reduce their use or release of toxic substances. Volumes of the original chemicals in the inventory have dropped nearly 60%.
Eighty-one local and national environmental groups appealed to Congress in a letter to urge the EPA to leave the inventory unchanged.
EPA officials said Thursday that they might alter their proposal after a comment period that ends Jan. 13 if they are convinced that the public wants and would benefit from the data from small facilities. A final decision is expected in about one year.
In Los Angeles and Orange counties, the proposal would eliminate reports filed by some industrial plants in 115 ZIP Codes. And no plants would report emissions in 23 of those ZIP Codes, according to the Environment California report.
For example, three facilities in downtown Long Beach's 90802 ZIP Code report emissions data, but none would have to under the proposed revisions. In the 90660 ZIP Code in Pico Rivera, the only two plants that now report would no longer have to do so. Nor would the two plants reporting emissions in the town of San Fernando's 91340 ZIP Code.
Nationwide, 3,849 industrial plants would no longer be required to file detailed reports. That would include 297 in California, more than in any other state, according to the environmental groups' reports.
In California, Los Angeles tops the list with 17 facilities that would not have to report the details, followed by Santa Ana and Santa Fe Springs, each with eight.
Among Southern California companies that would no longer have to file full reports are Edgington Oil Co. in Long Beach, Pioneer Diecasters Inc. in Los Angeles, Jasco Chemical Corp. in Santa Ana and Century Plastics Inc. in Compton, according to the Environment California report, which was based on 2003 inventories.
According to the EPA, about one-third of the 26,000 facilities that file toxic inventories would have some regulatory relief, saving businesses roughly 165,000 hours of work each year to collect and report the data. More than 99% of the tons of toxic releases that are reported will still be reported, EPA officials said.
"We're only talking about a very, very small percentage of information," the EPA's Nelson said. "We want to see if this is the kind of information that communities want. Is that information valuable to somebody? If it is, tell us and that would justify the cost of collecting this data."
The EPA in September also informed Congress that it intends to soon propose another relaxation of the rules, requiring companies to report the data every other year instead of annually.
© 2005 Los Angeles Times