Watchdog Alleges White House Pushed to Weaken Toxic Pollution Reporting

When does saving multibillion dollar companies a few bucks supersede the public’s right to know about toxic emissions? The EPA, with a kick in the pants from the president’s budget office, thinks it knows — and it’s now. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) bowed to White House pressure to weaken reporting standards for companies that release toxic pollution into the air, water and soil, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report [PDF].

The new rule eliminates more than 22,000 Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) reports from the government database — or one-quarter of the nearly 90,000 industry reports filed annually that track dangerous chemicals. The GAO’s audit notes that “more than 3,500 facilities [would] no longer report detailed information about their toxic chemical releases and waste management practices.”

TRI reports are used by local officials and consumer advocacy groups to develop pollution prevention policies and mitigation strategies, to calculate fees for toxic emissions, and to determine emergency planning and Hazmat procedures.

To put this into context, 2.4 billion pounds of toxic pollution were released into U.S. air, land and water in 2004, according to the last report available. Meanwhile, the EPA has identified the basic toxicity of only seven percent of high-volume manufactured chemicals that are known to cause cancer, birth defects, developmental delays in children or reproductive disorders.

The GAO’s audit revealed serious departures from the EPA’s own rule-making process — much at the urging of the president’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to expedite an easing of reporting standards for companies. The rushed process resulted in inadequate time to fully evaluate the local impact of the rule change while ignoring overwhelming public opposition. Auditors also noted that the EPA’s flawed analysis “masked the disproportionately large impacts” of the reduced reporting and that the $6 million in financial benefits were overstated by as much as 25 percent due to inaccurate data from the OMB.

On July 17, Colorado Confidential reported the possible rule change and its impact on the state.  The toxic pollution threat to reproductive health is especially stark. Toxicants in Colorado — largely due to metal mining — are known to cause, in sufficient quantities, spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, birth defects and sterility in both men and women.

Twelve states filed a suit against the EPA on Nov. 28 demanding reinstatement of the previous, more stringent TRI reporting standards.

According to Mark Salley, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, the state did not seriously pursue joining the suit “due to the low impact of the change in Colorado.” Attorney General John Suthers’ spokesman Nate Strauch claimed that his office was not aware of the suit.

With 6.8 million pounds of pollutants, Colorado ranks 13th in the nation for land releases of recognized carcinogens and developmental and reproductive toxicants. Ten of the states suing the EPA ranked significantly lower than Colorado.

The Toxic Release Inventory report was established by Congress in 1986 to better inform the public about toxic chemical releases in their communities. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who authored the original bill signed by President Ronald Reagan, recently introduced S. 595, “The Toxic Right-to-Know Protection Act,” an amendment to a decades-old law to strike the EPA’s new reduced reporting rule. Denver’s Diana DeGette, a Democrat, is the only Colorado lawmaker signed on as a co-sponsor to the equivalent House bill.

The Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act was passed in reaction to the Union Carbide Bhopal disaster — a pesticide gas leak in India that killed an estimated 20,000 people and injured more than 120,000. A month later, the company disclosed that the same chemical was released more than two dozen times from a similar facility in West Virginia, with one 1985 incident sending 135 people to local hospitals.

In a case of supreme irony, the EPA last week announced a $3 million grant program to assist communities in reducing toxic pollution in neighborhoods — evidently without the future benefit of TRI reports that provide detailed local data for releases of less than 5,000 pounds of toxins.