Christian Science Monitor

December 6, 2005


The EPA plan would help small businesses reduce paperwork.

By Mark Clayton

Gracie Lewis is on a crusade to save the Toxics Release Inventory, a
trove of federal pollution data vital to helping her -- and activists
nationwide -- win community battles for cleaner air and water.

Until a couple of years ago, Mrs. Lewis was at her wits' end over the
stew of chemical odors wafting into her home from nearby factories in
the industrial heart of Louisville, Ky., a neighborhood known as

Though she still smells them today, the city now has a plan for
beating back toxic emissions, in part because of TRI data gathered
annually by the Environmental Protection Agency, she says. With those
crucial numbers in hand, she and other activists can ferret out
companies releasing harmful chemicals. "Once we smell it, we call the
odor hot line," she says.

But that ability to check the numbers may be changing as the EPA mulls
over whether to lower the TRI reporting requirements. Small businesses
have welcomed the proposal because it eliminates extra paperwork. But
Lewis, environmentalists, and first responders have become part of a
vocal national backlash since the changes were first proposed in
September. These groups argue they would lose vital data and would not
be able to hold polluters accountable.

"The administration's recommendation is dangerous and cavalier and
should be withdrawn or blocked by Congress," opined the Columbian, a
daily newspaper in Clark County, Wash., in October.

Under the new EPA plan, TRI reporting would be done once every other
year instead of annually. It would also substantially raise the
thresholds for amounts of many toxic emissions that have to be
reported -- from 500 to 5,000 pounds. But it would save millions of
dollars in paper shuffling by small businesses that emit little
pollution anyway, EPA officials say.

"EPA's proposal would collect 99 percent of the same data and allow
small businesses to meet their reporting obligations to EPA in a more
streamlined way," says Eryn Witcher, the agency's press secretary.

But in a teleconference last Thursday, environmentalists, first
responders, and health advocates unveiled an analysis showing that
under the new EPA plan, at least 922 communities nationwide -- more
than 10 percent of the nation's ZIP Codes -- would lose all numerical
TRI data on local polluters, according to the National Environmental
Trust, an environmental group in Washington.

In Kentucky, at least 13 ZIP Codes would no longer receive TRI data
under the new EPA proposal. In Jefferson County, Ky., 15 of some 75
TRI facilities would not have to report data if the plan is
implemented, the NET analysis shows. In the county, data on 45 tons of
toxic releases would not have been reported if the EPA's proposed
standards had been in place, says the NET study.

"The EPA plan would result in an inaccurate picture of pollution at
the local level, hamper our ability to prepare for emergencies, and
provide an incentive for facilities to pollute more in our
communities," says Tom Natan, director of research for the NET.

Besides the 3,849 out of 21,489 TRI facilities nationwide that would
be excluded from reporting toxic release data, another 1,608 among the
8,927 ZIP Codes with TRI facilities across the country would have the
reportable amounts cut in half, Dr. Natan says.

Many activists say it is not time to decrease reporting requirements
because the TRI program continues to be effective. It is widely
credited with helping reduce almost 65 percent of toxic chemical
releases since its inception, Natan says. And more, not less,
information is needed on industrial toxic releases, many activists
say. They point to the chemical soup generated by industrial
facilities after hurricane Katrina struck; a big benzene spill in
China last month; and a chemical spill that killed more than 2,000 in
Bhopal, India, in 1984.

The TRI program came into existence under the Emergency Planning and
Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986, in the aftermath of the tragedy
in India and a chemical spill in West Virginia. The act mandates that
emissions of toxic chemicals be made public. Today, more than 23,000
facilities nationwide report the release of about 650 chemicals in the
air and water, as well as those deposited in landfills.

But groups like the National Federation of Independent Business, which
represents smaller companies, have a different view of the situation.
They've been pushing for EPA revisions to TRI.

"This has been a top-tier issue for our members, and we've worked
closely with folks at EPA to see some manner of TRI reform," says
Andrew Langer, NFIB's manager of regulatory policy.

"It's simply not true," he says of the claim that businesses might
emit more in nonreporting years. "Small businesses are not going to
drastically change their operations to hide their emissions."

In Louisville, the American Bluegrass Marble Company has struggled
with the EPA's red tape. According to the NET data, the 50-employee
company, which makes marble vanity tops and other bathroom fixtures,
would be among those let off the hook by new EPA rules.

In 2003, the company reported emitting 14 pounds of styrene, a
chemical used in sealants, into the atmosphere. Despite this low
level, it took employee James Feeney and a hired consultant a week to
fill out the TRI paperwork, he said.

"I won't say it's a hardship, but it's been expensive, and the company
has had to hire a consultant just to figure the paperwork out," he
says. "If we were exempted, it would be great. Some of the things EPA
has made us do are just ridiculous."

In Maryland, some first responders and environmentalists are worried
because the EPA plan would mean losing all TRI data in 15 ZIP Codes.

"We need all the information we can get," says Mike Donahue, battalion
chief for the Montgomery County Fire Rescue Services. "I'm opposed to
the plan" to squeeze back the TRI, he adds.

The comment period on the proposed changes ends Jan. 13.

Copyright 2005 The Christian Science Monitor