New Energy on TRI at National Conference

4/7/2009

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking steps toward improving public access to pollution information and is seeking ideas from the public for improving the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program. During a national conference on TRI the week of March 30, the EPA presented several new tools for accessing and analyzing pollution data that will soon be available to the public. The TRI, a bedrock right-to-know program, has not been expanded since 2000, and EPA has been heavily criticized for its management of the program in recent years.

The EPA and the nonprofit Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) held the 2009 Toxics Release Inventory National Training Conference in Maryland. The theme of the conference was "Expanding Partnerships/Expanding Knowledge," and the agency repeatedly sought ideas from the attendees on how to enhance the TRI program, which collects and publishes data on the release or transfer of toxic chemicals by numerous industries nationwide. Discussions at the conference included adding new industries and new chemicals to the TRI program, releasing raw TRI data earlier, and restoring EPA's role as an advocate for reducing pollution.

For the first time since the creation of the TRI program, the EPA administrator addressed the conference. Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that EPA is "back on the job" and spoke to the importance of an open and transparent EPA. Jackson's presence underscored the agency's new attitude toward right-to-know issues.

In her remarks, Jackson mentioned the December 2008 USA Today articles that investigated potential health risks from toxic emissions near schools. Jackson presented the newspaper's use of TRI data as an example of the important impact the right-to-know program can have. EPA announced it will begin air monitoring around selected schools, partly in response to the reports. "People need knowledge so that they have the power to effectuate change at home," said Jackson.

Sean Moulton, OMB Watch's Director of Federal Information Policy, delivered the keynote address on the first public day of the event. Moulton outlined three tracks where the TRI program is ripe for improvement.

  • First, EPA should increase the amount of information provided through TRI.
  • Second, TRI data should be linked to other data, such as health impacts of chemicals and enforcement actions against companies.
  • Third, EPA must reinvigorate its role as a pollution prevention advocate.

More details about these recommended enhancements will be available on OMB Watch's blog, The Fine Print, beginning April 7.

The risk screening model that EPA uses to identify important emission situations for follow-up action received a lot of attention at the conference. Several commenters, especially among industry representatives, emphasized limitations of the computer-based model. An oil industry-funded study seemed to identify inconsistencies between the model's analyses and real-world measurements. Other attendees appealed to the agency to meet its responsibility to use such tools, however flawed, to find and address potential public health hazards. The EPA administrator seemed to concur with the latter point when she cited favorably the USA Today reports, which used the same computer model to analyze TRI data.

New Access Tools

The EPA revealed several new features designed to expand the public's ability to examine and process TRI data.

The EPA has begun a multi-year arrangement with ECOS to develop a new online forum for TRI users to share analyses of TRI and other environmental data. The site, ChemicalRight2Know.org, will be launched publicly later this spring. According to previews of the website available at the conference, ChemicalRight2Know.org will showcase research and analyses using TRI data, new web applications, and "real world stories of people using TRI information." EPA also hopes the website will facilitate collaboration "on solving community chemical-related problems."

Two other new technical tools presented at the conference also look promising. The new TRI.net is a downloadable "data engine" that will allow advanced, ad hoc searches of TRI data and includes extensive mapping capabilities. The TRI Chemical Hazard Information Profile (TRI CHIP) is a searchable database that contains toxicity data on TRI chemicals from multiple sources.

The EPA also announced plans to begin releasing TRI data much earlier than the agency has in prior years. In the past, it was common for the agency to release the data 15 to 18 months after the end of the calendar year. However, with 97 percent of TRI facilities submitting reports electronically, along with the agency separating the data release from its official analysis, the EPA hopes to release newly reported raw TRI data in late summer, just 7 or 8 months following the calendar year for which the data applies. The agency would update the data several times before it is finalized and processed for analysis. The early release should allow the public to identify troubling releases at local facilities much sooner.

In 2008, EPA surveyed certain public stakeholders about their information access needs. EPA's resulting Information Access Strategy highlights the calls for improving the public's ability to find and understand data and the need for more tools to use the data. EPA cited these responses as a driving force behind its new TRI efforts.

The new TRI-related websites and applications, the early release of raw data, and the outreach to interested groups and individuals signify a major change in the agency's posture toward public access. The Obama administration seems to have broken from the previous administration’s approach and is making improving public access to environmental information a high priority.