December 16, 2005
EPA Tries to Pull a Disappearing Act on the Toxics Release Inventory
by William Baue
In response to the Environmental Protection Agency proposal to dilute TRI, the socially responsible
investing community launches the SaveTRI.org website.
In late September 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed "burden reduction" rule
changes to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), which requires facilities that produce toxic chemicals to
report their wastes and emissions. Established by the Emergency Planning and Community
Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA) in response to the Union Carbide
gas leak in Bhopal, India in December 1984 that killed tens of thousands, TRI pioneered the use of
disclosure (instead of regulation) as a powerful mitigator.
"EPA is launching a
frontal assault on the Toxics Release Inventory program by proposing to convert the annual
reporting requirement to alternate-year reporting," said Senator Jim Jeffords (I-VT) immediately after the announcement of the proposed
change. "The Community Right-to-Know Act will become the Community Right-to-Know-Every-Other-Year
Members of the socially responsible investing (SRI) community echoed this sentiment.
Yesterday they launched the "SaveTRI.org"
website to encourage those concerned about the changes to write to EPA during the public commentary
period that was extended to January 13, 2006.
"What if we looked at corporate earnings
every other year?" asks Julie Fox Gorte, vice president and chief social investment strategist for
the Calvert Group, suggesting this
analogy to highlight the absurdity of the proposal. "We might find corporations whose earnings
didn't change between 2003 and 2005, but they sure changed a lot in the meantime!"
years worth of no information in the investment world is forever--we react to what we see companies
doing much more immediately than every other year," adds Dr. Gorte.
Other members of the
SRI community, which relies heavily on TRI data to assess corporate environmental performance and
potential financial risks, also express dismay at the proposal.
"The proposed changes
would eviscerate the most cost-effective environmental rule the EPA has ever created in terms of
increasing eco-efficiency and reducing risk," says Jon Naimon, founding president of Light Green
Advisors (LGA), a Seattle-based SRI firm.
"National emission reductions following the first TRI publication have been much faster than those
generated by historical approaches to regulation embodied in the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
"TRI information is one of the few pieces of corporate accountability research
that is rooted in physical quantities--and therefore it is empirical as opposed to normative
information," Mr. Naimon told SocialFunds.com. "Ironically, for a Republican administration that
ostensibly favors information and market-based approaches, TRI is a program that works by spurring
market forces rather than requiring command-and-control technology-forcing compliance."
The proposal would also increase ten-fold (from 500 to 5,000 pounds of toxic waste) the
threshold for non-reporting using "Form A," which requires no details. The
changes would also allow facilities emitting persistent bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs), such as lead and mercury that have been
associated with human health risks even at low levels, to use Form A to report wastes less than 500
pounds without providing details.
These changes impact SRI research and
beyond--including the Toxic 100, which lists top
corporate polluters by aggregating TRI data by company.
"For the Toxic 100 and SRI
research in general, this EPA proposal would be a giant disappearing act," said Jim Boyce, director
of the environment program at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts, which created the Toxic 100. "The
increase in the Form A threshold would make important information vanish, because even a small
polluter can affect a large number of people if it's located in an urban area."
companies might be able to change their activities so that more pollution happens in the unreported
years, making them look better than they really are," Prof. Boyce told SocialFunds.com.
Intentional or not, emissions change significantly year-to-year as business ebbs and flows with
production lines closing temporarily and then reopening when market conditions improve, maintenance
or accidents closing plants for extended times, and bad weather events intervening.
example, in 2000 a BP chemical plant
in Decatur, Alabama emitted 48,000 pounds of benzene, a known human carcinogen, and then rose to
62,000 pounds in 2001, according to data
from the TRI Explorer program on the
EPA website. In 2002, the releases dropped to 16,000 pounds, but the next year they increased six-fold to 104,000 pounds.
"Looking just at the
even-numbered years at the BP Decatur plant, emissions declined 80 percent, but looking at the
odd-numbered years, the data shows pollution increasing by 70 percent," said Eric Schaeffer,
director of the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). "When emissions are jumping back and forth
five or even ten times higher or lower from one year to the next, it isn't hard to see why
collecting data every other year just doesn't work."
Those concerned with the proposed
changes can voice their opinion during the public commentary period through the EPA website or the
SaveTRI.org website. A website
for OMB Watch, which holds the White House
Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
accountable, links to seven different action alerts with templates for submitting comments on the
proposed change, as well as to a report on the issue.