(Beyond Pesticides, December 3, 2007) Twelve states sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday November 28 over a new regulation that exempts thousands of companies from disclosing to the public details about their use and emission of toxic chemicals. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New York by Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Vermont, accuses the agency of jeopardizing public health and seeks to force it to return to more stringent requirements. EPA’s measure, which took effect in January, raised by 10 times the threshold for reporting most chemicals under its national Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program.
For most toxic substances, the changes allow businesses that manage less than 5,000 pounds of a given chemical in a year, and release less than 2,000 pounds into the environment, to file a simplified, two-page form that provides only the names of the compounds. Previously, all companies that handled more than 500 pounds were required to file more detailed five-page forms, as were companies that handled any amount of substances considered the worst actors — those that accumulate in people or animals, are persistent in nature or are highly toxic. The EPA’s changes allow the latter companies to avoid detailed reporting if they emit none of the substances into the environment and manage less than 500 pounds. In joining the lawsuit, California Attorney General Jerry Brown said the EPA was “subverting a key public safety measure that helps communities protect themselves from toxic chemicals.”
“EPA’s rollbacks set a dangerous precedent that undermines two decades of public access to toxic pollution data,” said Emily Rusch, a California Public Interest Research Group advocate. For nearly 20 years, the national Toxics Release Inventory has allowed people to access data about hundreds of chemicals used and released in their communities. Congress established the toxic database in 1986 when it enacted the Right to Know Act after a 1984 leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killed at least 20,000 people and left over 150,000 people injured. In about 9,000 communities, the annual reports provide details about the use of nearly 600 industrial chemicals. The reports identify which industrial plants emit the most toxic substances, whether their emissions are increasing and what compounds may be contaminating the air and water.
EPA spokeswoman Molly O’Neill said in a statement the TRI revisions included incentives to reduce emissions of PBT, persistent bioaccumulative and toxic, chemicals. O’Neill said companies “can only use the shorter TRI form for PBT reports if they can certify that they have zero release of PBTs to the environment.” EPA officials say they changed the regulation to cut companies’ costs of monitoring emissions and filing complex annual reports. The agency says the changes will save industry $6 million a year and affect about 6,700 facilities.
In its original proposal unveiled in 2005, the EPA had planned to grant even broader exemptions. But after an outpouring of opposition among the more than 100,000 comments received, the EPA dropped about 60% of the proposed exemptions. The goal, EPA officials said, is to cut costs for smaller facilities that contribute less than 1% of total emissions in the country. In all, industry spends about $650 million a year to comply with the reporting requirements.
But Brown said even small companies should be forced to provide the more detailed information because they pose a public threat. “A ton’s a lot of stuff, you know,” Brown said Wednesday in an interview. “As we swim in this chemical soup that modern society serves up, we certainly have a right to know what we are encountering. Number one, it makes the businessperson conscious that they’re trespassing on the public’s space, and secondly, neighbors and activists are alerted and can bring pressure to bear to reduce the emissions.”