The Toxics Release Inventory is Back

On March 11, President Barack Obama signed into law a restoration of the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), reversing changes made by the Bush administration that had weakened the program. The measure was included deep within the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 and restored the rules that existed before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) weakened them in December 2006.

The change lowers the thresholds for reporting releases of more than 650 toxic chemicals and requires that releases of persistent bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs) always be reported in detail. The EPA is now implementing the new thresholds for reports being submitted for calendar year 2008 and will soon issue a rule revising the regulatory text to reflect the changes.

The restoration of TRI is the culmination of years of efforts by hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals nationwide. When the Bush administration first proposed raising the amount of pollution companies could release before they had to disclose it, the public's reaction was overwhelmingly in opposition. Of the 122,420 comments received by EPA, 99.97 percent were opposed to the proposed rule. Only 34 commenters expressed some level of support for the proposals. However, the EPA ignored the public's will and finalized the rule change. Soon after, 13 states sued the EPA to eliminate the new rules and return to the previous thresholds.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) have previously introduced legislation to overturn the EPA's action, but their stand-alone legislation was never able to reach a full vote. It is likely the Bush administration would have vetoed such legislation even if it had passed. Pallone and Lautenberg included language in the omnibus spending bill to improve the chances of success.

OMB Watch worked in coalition with a host of other organizations to stop the TRI rollback and then to restore the reporting rules following the Bush EPA's decision. Most recently, OMB Watch teamed with U.S. PIRG to send a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, urging her to settle the lawsuit and restore the reporting thresholds. The letter was signed by 237 national, state, and local organizations and more than 1,300 individuals.

2007 Data Released to Public

On March 19, one week after the passage of the measure restoring the TRI reporting thresholds, the EPA released the data from 2007 TRI reports.

Jackson announced, "This information underscores the need for fundamental transparency and provides a powerful tool for protecting public health and the environment." Jackson also commented on the TRI reporting rules, saying she is "pleased that Congress under the leadership of Senator Lautenberg took action to restore the rigorous reporting standards of this vital program."

The public release of data from 2006 occurred on Feb. 21, 2008, almost one month earlier than this year's release of 2007 data. EPA officials said they had hoped to release the 2007 data as early as January but wanted to allow the Obama administration and the new EPA administrator time to review the process beforehand. Facilities had until July 2008 to submit their reports of 2007 releases. Many environmental right-to-know advocates have been pushing EPA to release the data to the public sooner.

According to the EPA's analysis, almost 4.1 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the environment or otherwise disposed of in 2007, a decrease of five percent since 2006. Releases to air decreased seven percent, and releases to water decreased five percent.

For 2007, 21,996 facilities reported to TRI. This is the seventh year in a row that the number of facilities reporting their toxic releases declined. It is not clear whether all facilities that should be reporting to TRI have been doing so. TRI program staff have indicated that the EPA will try to identify the driving forces behind this downward trend.

Metal mining and electric utilities account for the majority of releases (53 percent), and since 2006, the two industries have experienced decreases of eight percent and one percent, respectively.

Releases of PBTs increased one percent, driven largely by an increase in releases of lead and by releases from a "handful of facilities." Three metal mines were responsible for the bulk of a 38 percent increase in releases of mercury, a PBT.

On-site releases of toxic chemicals to land accounted for 44 percent of total disposals and other releases in 2007, and releases to air accounted for 32 percent.

The TRI program, instituted in 1987, collects information on disposal and releases of more than 650 toxic chemicals. The program does not require any reductions in releases or use of toxic chemicals but has been credited with reducing releases through pressure from the public disclosure of pollution.

The 2007 TRI data are now available on OMB Watch's Right-to-Know Network.

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