Dismantling the Public's Right to Know
Under the Bush administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is slowly dismantling its flagship environmental information tool—the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). The program has been protected and improved for over the last 15 years, since it was put in place during the Reagan administration. The TRI database enables the public to learn about the environmental risks in our workplaces and communities by providing information about hundreds of toxic chemicals released into the environment. Moreover, the TRI program has served as a constant example of the vital role information plays in a democracy, and the importance of the public's right to know. Unfortunately, the program's success has made it a target for those that seek to reduce corporate oversight and accountability.
The easy access to pollution information provided by TRI has empowered citizens to push for improvements, and facilities have acted to reduce releases. Since facilities began reporting in 1988, there has been a nearly 60 percent reduction in total releases of the 299 core chemicals that the program began tracking. This is a significant drop, one that was fueled by merely making information publicly available. As new chemicals have been added to the TRI program, those releases have also dropped. This year, EPA reported a 42 percent reduction in releases and disposal of the more than 650 chemicals now tracked under TRI over the 6 years between 1998 and 2003. TRI is EPA's premier database of environmental information, and it demonstrates the power that information holds to promote change that benefits everyone's environment, health and safety.
Despite the program's positive impacts, the TRI is under attack from the very agency administering this success story. EPA's recent actions and stated plans are geared to downgrade and weaken the TRI program. These actions represent a recent and definitive shift in EPA's approach to TRI and are largely a result of the current administration's political priorities--corporations first, communities last.
This OMB Watch report outlines a set of troubling trends and developments regarding EPA's TRI program:
- Eliminating TRI Reporting: EPA recently proposed reducing the accuracy of TRI reporting, letting companies produce ten times the pollution before requiring them to report the details of amount and destination (e.g. air, water). Furthermore, EPA announced its intention to cut the entire program in half by switching to reporting every other year, significantly reducing the level of accountability the program provides over facilities and making it impossible for communities to get timely information on toxic releases and trends.
- Ineffective Legal Defense of TRI: EPA had mounted limited and unenthusiastic legal defenses against industry court challenges of the TRI program that have cost the public important information about toxic releases and risk additional challenges.
- Reduced Analysis: Previously issuing voluminous and detailed reports to accompany each data release, EPA has reduced the report to a pamphlet with scant analysis and a few press materials.
- Loss of Facility and Community Focus: EPA has practically abandoned facility-specific analysis, even though this is the most highly sought after and useful data.
- Misleading Analysis: EPA analysis highlights the most positive results and buries any troubling data, effectively providing the public with only half the story.
- Silent Release of TRI Data: EPA engaged in a "stealth release" of the most recent TRI data to lower the profile of this highly successful program.
- Delayed Information: EPA has failed to get the TRI data out in a timely manner, regularly taking up to 18 months, severely reducing the usefulness of the data.
Taken individually, any of these actions could be seen as poor judgment, regrettable errors or even simple incompetence on behalf of the agency. However, when viewed collectively, they illustrate EPA's organized effort to downplay and dismantle the TRI program. It has become quite evident that the Bush administration's priorities are corporations before communities, special interests before public interests, and catering to polluters over public health. This report details the advancement of this agenda with regards to EPA's TRI program and provides specific recommendations on how to restore and revitalize the TRI program.