Easing up on polluters

Finding out what toxic gunk is released in your neighborhood may be about to get harder.

The Toxics Release Inventory is a database maintained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that keeps track of toxic emissions released by U.S. companies. The TRI, which came out of a community right-to-know law signed by President Reagan in 1986, covers about 650 toxic chemicals. It was designed to give citizens information about exactly what kind of toxic gunk is being released into their communities each year.

Though annual, it takes a few years for the EPA to compile and release each year’s data to the public, making the 2004 report, (released April 12, 2006) the most recent available.

In Sept. 2005, the EPA announced a “burden relief” proposal, supported by Rep. Jim Gibbons, which would reduce reporting to every other year. If it passes, the result will be an even greater time gap for up-to-date, public information. The EPA also seeks to raise the threshold for reporting non-PBT (persistent bioaccumulative toxins) chemicals, such as chromium in an alloy and benzene, from 500 pounds to 5,000 pounds.

In an interview with U.S. Newswire, Tom Natan of the Environmental Trust said, “[It’s] a move that places polluter interests squarely ahead of public health and safety. With less data, scientists and the media will find it more difficult to reduce environmental health risks that can endanger the public.”

The “burden” is illustrated in words from an article in Public Utilities Reports, an industry newsletter. It was written by James R. Pierobo in 1999, shortly after it was announced that coal- and oil-fired electricity generators would be added to the list of industries required to do TRI reporting: “Hazardous emissions are one thing. Damaging publicity is something else—especially in the point-and-click world of Internet access. The public bundling of this data … will add significantly to the pressure on some utilities to reduce their releases of toxic chemicals into the environment.” As a “warning,” he went on to say that during the first 11 years of the TRI, facilities submitting data reportedly reduced emissions by 43 percent.

The EPA said alternate-year reporting would “result in significant burden reduction for covered facilities” and that “citizens would benefit from the redirection of federal and state taxpayer dollars to improve the quality, clarity, usefulness and accessibility of TRI information products and services.”

Glenn Miller, director of UNR’s Environmental Sciences and Health graduate program and a board member of Great Basin Mine Watch, says that while TRI reporting does cost public money, lack of reporting does, too, with costs to health and the environment.

He says changing reporting times from annual to biannual would deemphasize the importance of pollution. “People don’t like to hang their dirty laundry,” he says. “It would be a gift to polluters to reduce it to every other year,” he says. He adds, “You care about the things you measure.”