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August 30, 2005
Toxic 100 Uses Enhanced Toxics Release Inventory Data to List Top Corporate Polluters
    by William Baue

The Toxic 100 aggregates facility-level TRI data to compute company-wide toxic emissions performance.


The amount of toxic chemicals released into the air is inversely related to the release of information on toxic emissions to the public--in other words, the more available information on toxic emissions is, the less toxic emissions occur. This formula underpins the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), created by the passage of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA).

The Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts is adding another element to this formula to increase the relevance of TRI data as a means of promoting further reductions in toxic emissions. PERI took facility-level TRI data from 2000 (the most recent information available) and aggregated it by company to create the Toxic 100, a list of the largest corporate emitters of toxics in the US. Of companies in the Fortune 500, Forbes 500, and S&P 500, the top five Toxic 100 companies are GE (ticker: GE), Georgia-Pacific (GP), Eastman Kodak (EK), Boeing (BA), and US Steel (X).

"The Toxic 100 informs consumers and shareholders which US corporations release the most toxic pollutants into our air," says Jim Boyce, director of PERI's environment program. "We measure not just how many pounds of pollutants are released, but which are the most toxic and how many people are at risk."

What inspired PERI to create the Toxic 100 was the EPA's Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI) project, which seeks to increase the relevance of TRI data by overcoming three of TRI's limitations. First, TRI reports raw data in pounds, as if all chemicals have the same degree of toxicity. Not so--one pound of asbestos is equivalent to 27 million pounds the chemical chlorodifluoromethane (HCFC-22), in terms of toxicity. RSEI therefore formulates a "toxicity weight" for each chemical to express its relative toxicity per pound, and multiplies it by each pound emitted to arrive at a more accurate calculation of the relative hazards of different toxic chemicals.

Second, TRI data do not take meteorology or geography into account, so RSEI examines local wind patterns, temperature, and topography as well as smokestack height and exit velocity of emitted gases to determine release concentrations within 10,000 square kilometers of each facility.

Third, TRI data do not take demographics into account, despite the fact that emissions occurring upwind from densely populated urban centers have a much different human impact from emissions into less populous rural regions--so RSEI adds census counts into the equation.

If TRI demonstrates the power of transparency and disclosure to promote change, RSEI enhances this power by extending TRI's comprehensiveness.

"There's some good evidence--there have been several academic articles about it--that the mere release of the TRI data prompts corporations and facilities to reduce their emissions because they didn't want the bad publicity--this effect is sometimes called 'informal regulation,'" Prof. Boyce told SocialFunds.com. "You don't necessarily need the government to regulate--once sunlight is shone on the problem, that can be enough to induce changes in behavior on the part of corporations."

"The TRI is considered the crown jewel of the right-to-know movement, but if you build upon that database in the way EPA has done with RSEI, and that we have built upon a little more by aggregating, you have a much richer and more relevant set of information about what and where the hazards really are," states Prof. Boyce. "With this enhanced data out in the public, relative performance will be judged, promoting voluntary initiatives by corporations to reduce their RSEI scores just as they seek to reduce their TRI scores--the sum effect is to reduce human health hazards even more."

RSEI not only complements and enhances TRI, but also sometimes supplants TRI. To illustrate this point, Prof. Boyce poses the example of a company faced with a decision between two chemicals, one more toxic and one less toxic.

"If all a company is concerned about is minimizing pounds, as TRI encourages, they may use the more toxic substance because it lowers overall poundage," explains Prof. Boyce.

RSEI, on the other hand, factors in toxicity to encourage companies to use less toxic options. This distinction carries important implications for socially responsible investment (SRI) advocates.

"If one of the interests of the SRI community in environmental performance is concern about potential future liabilities associated with emissions of toxins, then RSEI and the Toxic 100 are clearly much more useful information than just how many pounds of toxins altogether a plant releases," Prof. Boyce states.

PERI intends to update the Toxic 100 list based on 2002 TRI data recently released by the EPA. In addition, PERI intends to aggregate TRI and RSEI data not just for the top 500 lists.

"As a way to get started, we decided we would limit our aggregating to the biggest 500 corporations in the US, but we now hope to aggregate RSEI data for all TRI-reporting facilities," Prof. Boyce says.

 

 
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