Bit by Bit, EPA Opening Up Toxics Program

by Brian Turnbaugh*, 3/15/2010

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced it is taking another small step increasing transparency by providing free access to a key database that lists every chemical in commerce. Well…almost every chemical. Of the more than 84,000 chemicals on the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Chemical Substance Inventory, the identities of almost 17,000 are kept secret because the manufacturers allege the information is confidential business information (CBI). Such CBI claims are widely abused by manufacturers, and with the EPA's acquiescence, large amounts of information are inappropriately withheld from the public. 

The EPA has acknowledged that CBI claims under TSCA are a problem and has taken additional steps to curtail the abuse. In January the agency announced it would reject a manufacturer's claim that the chemical identity is secret if the chemical identity already appears publicly in the inventory. This was a sensible move, and it shows that there likely are many other common sense actions the agency can take to improve the public's access to crucial information that should not be kept secret.

Comprehensive TSCA reform legislation is expected to be introduced in Congress any week now (it's been expected any week now for the last several months) and that might help the problem even more. However, EPA's toxics program is not the only program that sees abuses of CBI claims. For example, pesticides are regulated under a different law and illegitimate CBI claims infect that program too, impeding the public from learning what poisons are being applied near them or near sensitive ecosystems (like your drinking water source). EPA gathers information from businesses under a variety of regulations, and the public's right to know about a range of potential harms is impaired by illegitimate and exploitative trade secrets claims.

Before today's action, the list of chemicals was only available for a fee from the Commerce Department. Now the data are available for free in multiple formats from www.data.gov or from the EPA website.

EPA also announced it is planning additional steps to open up the chemical regulatory process. The agency will add TSCA facility information and the list of chemicals manufactured at the facility to the Facility Registry System (FRS). FRS is a database of the thousands of facilities covered by numerous EPA regulations. According to EPA, "The addition of TSCA facility and chemical databases to FRS will provide the public with information on the facilities in their communities using industrial chemicals." No time frame was provided for this action.

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