WHEN the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, released clouds of methyl-isocyanate mist that killed thousands of people and poisoned tens of thousands more one night in December 1984, Congress was quick to act. (Quick by congressional standards, that is.) Twelve months later, it passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act.
The legislation requires businesses to provide regular hard data on toxic chemical stocks and how such chemicals are disposed of. The heart of the law is the "toxics-release inventory" that manufacturing facilities must make to the Environmental Protection Agency every year, which covers 320 listed chemicals. This includes toxics injected underground, discharged to sewage-treatment plants, or shipped elsewhere for storage or treatment, as well as chemicals simply released into the air, water, or ground.
In the years since, this law - and especially its provision for letting people know the amounts and whereabouts of industrial poisons in their communities - has done much to help reduce the use and discharge of dangerous chemicals. It's a simple formula: More information leads to public pressure, which leads to reform.
In looking at the latest toxics-release data, for example, the private watchdog group Citizen Action last week cited 3M, Fort Howard Steel, General Motors, and National Steel among "an increasing number of companies [that] should be noted for their real actions to reduce toxic pollution."
The overall picture, however, leaves much to be desired. For manufacturing firms required to report in 1990, there was a total release of more than 400 million pounds of chemicals known or suspected to be carcinogenic and 1.2 billion pounds believed to cause birth defects. (One weakness of the law is that it takes 18 months to make the release inventory public.)
Also, in surveying the 50 facilities reporting the largest decreases over the previous year, Citizen Action concluded that "most reported reductions were due, not to pollution reduction efforts, but rather to changes in reporting and loopholes in the law."
It should be made clear that these are legal chemical releases. But the point of the right-to-know law is to let the public know whose backyard the releases are in and thus influence politicians, regulators, and business executives to do something about them. (The Citizen Action survey also noted the tiny number of instances in which chief executives actually live in the communities where their companies have released toxic chemicals.)
Proposed "right-to-know-more" legislation would add 17 categories of industry to the existing reporting program, including incinerators, waste-water treatment plants, and mining operations. It also would add 520 toxic chemicals to the list that must be reported.
Both amendments seem reasonable. According to a recent report by another private watchdog group - OMB Watch - "The current law excludes many significant chemicals and facilities, and overlooks an estimated 95 percent of all toxic releases."
The general response of industry (mainly the chemical industry) has been, "We're careful and responsible and we don't need more regulations."
Since so many of the biggest users and disposers of toxic chemicals do business overseas, one way to check that assertion is to see how they're doing abroad.
Friends of the Earth, which is active in 47 countries, this summer published a report providing some illumination here. It asked 43 companies that are required to report under the US toxic-release inventory program to provide similar data for their United Kingdom operations. Of the 43, only 11 were fully forthcoming.
A similar survey by the Public Data Project in Washington, D.C., had just six of 40 companies queried providing full information on their largest facility outside the United States. This does not mean the firms are not handling toxic chemicals responsibly, but it does indicate a lack of willingness to let the public know the full story.
In a number of instances, a handful of European plants were shown to be releasing more toxics than all US manufacturers combined. Is this because they do not have the reporting requirements and the attendant public spotlight experienced in the US? In the absence of evidence to the contrary, one has to assume so.