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 releases.
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, all PBTs.
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 accountability.
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 years.
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.
© 2006 The Daily Camera