Bush Rollback Will Hide Data on 600,000 Pounds of Toxic Chemicals in California
Stolen Inventory: About the TRI
In December 1984, thousands of people died following the release of methyl isocyanate, a chemical used to make pesticides, at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. This tragedy was followed by the disclosure one month later that the same chemical had leaked at least 28 times from a similar Union Carbide facility in Institute, W.V. Eight months later, 3,800 pounds of leaked chemicals from the same Institute plant sent dozens of injured people to local hospitals [NYT 1985a, NAP 1989a].
Following the tragedy in India and the realization that a similar disaster was possible in the United States, Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) in 1986 as Title III of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA). This legislation requires manufacturing facilities handling toxic chemicals to have emergency plans and coordinators in place in case accidents occur. Additionally, it requires facilities to inform communities and local authorities about the hazardous chemicals handled. Finally, the Act requires facilities to publicly report their chemical waste and emissions, a provision under Section 313 of the Act known as the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) [EPA 2004a, EPRCA].
The TRI has become the nation's premiere right-to-know law. It is one of the most widely praised and successful environmental programs for industry, environmentalists, and the public. Each year, companies across a wide range of industries (including chemical, mining, paper, oil and gas industries) that produce more than 25,000 pounds or handle more than 10,000 pounds of a listed toxic chemical must report it to the TRI. When the TRI first when into effect, the threshold was 75,000 pounds annually. Until the recent rollback by the EPA, if the company treated, recycled, disposed, or released more than 500 pounds of that chemical into the environment (as opposed to just handling it), they had to provide a detailed record of its use and environmental fate.
In 1990 the TRI was expanded with passage of the Pollution Prevention Act to include data on chemical quantities and practices involved in source reduction and recycling. In 1993 President Clinton issued an Executive Order in response to an evaluation of TRI by the General Accounting Office, which further expanded the program to require reporting from federal facilities [EPA 2002c]. EPA then reduced certain reporting requirements in 1994 when it established a system of different forms to be submitted for different levels of chemical releases [EPA 1994a]. Larger releases now require more detailed reporting, while smaller releases require more basic reporting.
In 1997 TRI was again expanded when EPA mandated more complete data on emissions from incinerators, and required TRI emissions reporting from additional industries not previously included: metal and coal mining, commercial electric utilities that use coal or oil, commercial hazardous waste treatment facilities, petroleum bulk terminals and plants, chemical and allied product wholesalers, and solvent recovery services [EPA 1997a].
The TRI imposes no pollution controls on industry, but instead requires facilities to report estimated levels of pollution and disposal for a list of 650 chemical compounds - less than one percent of chemicals registered for use in the U.S. This simple act of public disclosure has been undeniably beneficial for industry, the public, and the environment by:
- Producing broad reductions in emissions for scores of major air and water pollutants;
- Generating more efficient use of chemicals by industry;
- Helping to identify and prioritize chemicals of potential concern;
- Measuring progress toward chemical management goals;
- Delivering important information on pollution to communities near industrial facilities.
With annual emissions reporting from over 23,000 industrial and federal facilities, the TRI is credited with dropping the total releases of chemicals from all sources by 65 percent since 1989 [Hogue 2005]. It has also provided a foundation of solid facts to inform and drive policy advances, planning and citizen action at the national, state, and local levels.
In a 2003 report, the EPA listed two dozen state governments that rely on the TRI program for emergency planning, environmental targeting, risk assessments, standards, legislation, and quality assurance and control [EPA 2003a]. The state attorneys' general report said the TRI is also essential information for firefighters and local governments, for scientists, labor unions, investment advisors, even the Internal Revenue Service.
But nowhere has the TRI been more important than in the fight for environmental justice by grassroots communities - especially "fenceline" neighborhoods adjacent to chemical facilities. In the words of the attorneys general: "TRI data is the tool that proves the need for environmental justice at the national and local level." [Spitzer 2006]. Throughout California, TRI data has been a key tool that has empowered diverse communities to take action against toxic chemical hazards:
- In Los Angeles, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) used TRI data to show that more than 80 percent of facilities that release toxic chemicals in L.A. County were located in areas where a large majority of residents were people of color. Among the results: Three industrial recycling facilities relocated to more appropriately zoned areas, and the South Coast Air Quality Management District adopted environmental justice guidelines to ensure that diverse community voices are included in planning and regulatory decisions. [NIEHS 2005]
- In Richmond, the West County Toxics Coalition and CBE used the TRI to investigate refineries and other industrial polluters. The group published a report identifying the area's 20 largest polluters, naming a Chevron refinery as the worst. The report brought the oil company to the table for discussions that led to Chevron's agreement to close down older portions of the plant and install equipment to achieve zero emissions from an expansion. [EPA 1998]
- In the Ventura County community of Frasier Park, Concerned Residents of Lockwood Valley fought to get Pacific Custom Materials, a clay mine and cement kiln, report its emissions from burning diesel fuel to the TRI. They then used the data to force state and county regulators to crack down on the plant’s nitrogen and sulfur pollution, to institute real-time online emissions reporting, and bring a health damages lawsuit against the company, recently settled for an undisclosed amount. [Swan 2006]
- In West Oakland, the Chester Street Block Club Association, Citizens for West Oakland Revitalization and Greenaction used TRI data in a campaign against Red Star Yeast, whose plant was emitting tens of thousands of pounds of acetaldehyde, a carcinogen, and other toxic chemicals into the neighborhood's air. The community pressured authorities to investigate and fine Red Star for pollution violations and fought against renewal of the plant's operating permit, prompting the company to shut down the facility. [DeFao 2003]
Not surprisingly, the TRI is popular with the public, as demonstrated by public responses to government proposals to roll back the program in the past. The TRI's popularity is consistent with findings from public opinion polls showing that the public considers access to pollution information to be a basic right [Mellman 1999a].