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Paper vs. Toxins

Christopher Brauchli

It isn't necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice-there are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.

- Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book

The administration has done something that on the surface appears to be anti-environmental when in reality all it is doing is implementing the Paperwork Reduction Act.

The Paperwork Reduction Act that is referenced in many forms the citizen encounters says one of its purposes is to "minimize the paperwork burden for individuals, small businesses . . . Federal contractors . . . and other persons resulting from the collection of information by or for the Federal Government." Any attempt to describe in fewer than dozens of thousands of words any legislation enacted by Congress falls far short and the foregoing is no exception since the Act itself has 20 sections and the foregoing is but a snippet of the first section. George Bush takes great pleasure in finding any congressional Act with which he can cheerfully comply and his administration's compliance with this law has earned it unjustified criticism. The criticism pertains to lessening the paperwork burden imposed on certain companies by weakening requirements pertaining to the release of toxic chemicals.

The 1986 Emergency Planning & Community Right to Know Act was passed following the 1984 Union Carbide chemical disaster in Bhopal, India. Signed by President Reagan, the Act imposed reporting requirements on companies that dealt with toxic materials. Affected companies are required to produce a Toxic Release Inventory Report (TRI) disclosing, among other things, the release into the air, ground and water of toxic chemicals. Under the Act the Environmental Protection Agency is required to publish a list of extremely hazardous substances and publish a final regulation "establishing a threshold planning quantity for each substance on the list." Facilities dealing with those substances were subject to the requirements of the regulation "if one of the substances on the list is present at the facility in excess of the threshold planning quantity established for such substance."

Until the end of 2006, the threshold planning quantity was 500 pounds. Facilities with more than 500 pounds were required to make annual reports using a detailed form prepared by the EPA. The requirements became known as the "community right to know rules" since they gave communities detailed information about toxic releases into their environments that would otherwise have gone unreported. Although the rules were good, they had one consequence that the Bush administration disliked. They created a lot of paper work for the affected facilities since they were required to complete a form known as Form R instead of a simpler form known as Form A. Aware of the burden the rule placed on industry, the EPA has issued a new rule that is going to make life easier for facilities by reducing their paperwork and will reduce concern in communities around the country about the release of toxic materials into the environment since they will not learn of them and, thus, have no cause for alarm.

Under the new rules that this writer has tried in vain to put into comprehensible English, the use of form A has been expanded "by raising the eligibility limit on total waste management of non-persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals . . . from 500 pounds to 5,000 pounds, with a cap on releases and other disposal of 2,000 pounds." The number of communities that will sleep better at night as a result of being in the dark is, according to the General Accounting Office that understands the new rule, staggering.

According to the GAO summary, under the new rules the "EPA would allow more than 3,500 facilities to no longer report detailed information about their toxic chemical releases and waste management practices. As a result, more than 22,000 of the nearly 90,000 TRI reports could no longer be available to hundreds of communities in states throughout the country." The summary goes on to state that 12 state attorneys general and the EPA's own Science Advisory Board stated the changes "will significantly reduce the amount of useful TRI information." That wasn't all the GAO concluded.

It found that the EPA did not "follow key steps in agency guidelines designed to ensure that it conducts appropriate scientific, economic, and policy analyses" and went on to say that was because the Office of Management & Budget pressured the EPA to provide burden reduction by the end of 2006.

The GAO recommends that Congress overturn the rule by legislation and has supporters in Congress. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg who authored the 1986 legislation said: "Unfortunately, this report makes clear the Bush Administration is putting politics ahead of science and letting facilities hide critical data about toxic chemicals." Senator Barbara Boxer said: "The public has a right to know about toxic pollution in local communities." They may be right. However, reducing paperwork, as all who have ever dealt with paperwork would agree, is far more important than alarming communities by telling them about releases of toxic materials when there is not much they can do about a release that's already happened.

Christopher Brauchli - For political commentary see

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