EPA's Pollution Right-to-Know Program Revived From 10-year Coma

by Brian Turnbaugh*, 4/19/2010

After more than ten years in deep freeze, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now proposing steps to revitalize the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) – the bedrock public right-to-know program that tracks toxic pollution from thousands of businesses. Two recent EPA proposals would expand the number of chemicals reported to the program. This would be the first expansion since 1999. The proposals are small but important steps forward. However, EPA must do much more to boost the usefulness of this vital program.

The TRI program requires facilities to report how much pollution they release or transfer offsite and covers hundreds of toxic chemicals, making the information available to the public. In a new proposed rule, EPA has chosen to add 16 chemicals, including four that are especially dangerous persistent and bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs). The agency selected the chemicals from the National Toxicology Program's (NTP) most recent Report on Carcinogens (RoC). The 16 chemicals have been classified in the RoC as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen." This classification meets the criteria for requiring polluters to report their releases and transfers of these chemicals. EPA estimates that 175 facilities will be affected by this proposed rule.

The last time EPA added chemicals to the TRI list was October 1999, when seven chemicals and two chemical compound categories (all PBTs) were added and the reporting thresholds for PBTs lowered. The handful of chemicals proposed for addition to TRI represents a tiny fraction of the chemicals added into commerce since then.

According to the agency, it evaluated chemicals in the RoC that EPA considered would be used in amounts above existing thresholds for reporting. However, I see no reason why EPA could not add new chemicals AND create lower thresholds for reporting these new chemicals. EPA already has set different thresholds for different chemicals; it could do the same for newly added chemicals if warranted.

EPA also has proposed lifting an administrative stay that has prevented the reporting of hydrogen sulfide for the last 16 years. This is a crucial step. Many public health advocates are calling for regulation of hydrogen sulfide. TRI data will inform those decisions.

In 1994, EPA added 313 chemicals and chemical categories to TRI in one fell swoop. About 700 new chemicals are added to commerce in the United States every year. That means thousands of chemicals have been introduced since EPA last added chemicals to TRI, but not one is being reported to TRI. Given this, EPA's proposal to add 16 and lift the stay on one other seems rather puny. But it is a step forward, nonetheless.

The law authorizes EPA to add or delete a chemical, a facility, or a whole industrial sector at any time. It is highly troubling that for more than ten years no chemical was added, despite the enormous increase in the number of chemicals in commerce during that time. EPA has not added any new industries to TRI since May 1997, when metal mining, coal mining, electric utilities, and four other industries were required to report to TRI. So for 13 years – and counting – no new industry has been added. This means major polluters like oil and gas drillers and factory farms can continue hiding their pollution from the public.

The years-long dearth of meaningful enhancements to TRI illustrates the need for EPA to develop a system for regular reviews of chemicals, industries, thresholds, and methods of reporting. The agency should design processes – with substantial public involvement – that periodically and regularly assess how TRI should develop. There are many sources besides the NTP and its own data that EPA can draw on when considering adding chemicals. California's right-to-know program, Proposition 65, draws on the Food and Drug Administration, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, National Toxicology Program, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, among others, when deciding what chemicals to add to its program.

Although the law allows citizens to petition the agency to make additions or deletions, the EPA must take the lead and ensure that the Toxics Release Inventory remains a robust, evolving tool that provides government, the public, and industry with the relevant information needed to prevent toxic pollution.

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