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Debate Over How to Punish Repentant Polluters

Issue of public's right to know about polluters also divides administration, states.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 2, 1997

When a company discovers it's inadvertently violating some environmental regulation, but takes quick steps to resolve the problem, should it be slapped with a big fine anyway?

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Do people living next to that plant - people whose health or property values may be at stake - have the right to know every detail about the toxic waste being created there?

These questions are the essence of a major environmental debate gaining steam across the country and on Capitol Hill. It pits Uncle Sam against state governments, communities against manufacturers, and it involves basic political issues and competing fundamental rights.

Over the past three years, 24 states have passed laws granting certain polluting companies "privilege" or "immunity" (or both) if they conduct internal audits to look for environmental problems.

What this means is that business records can be kept secret and there will be no punishment as long as such companies have broken no other laws, admit there's a problem, and clean up.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas is sponsoring a bill that would extend the practice nationwide. "By ensuring companies that they will not be dragged into court for being honest, the bill encourages companies to find and fix violations and report them to the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]," she says. And with Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi as an enthusiastic co-sponsor, chances are the measure will move expeditiously in Congress.

But this effort to loosen regulations while encouraging voluntary cleanup has run smack into a key Clinton administration goal: making more (not less) information about pollution and waste available to the public.

"We believe that one of the most important tools we can give people is the 'right-to-know' about toxic pollutants in their own neighborhoods - so they can take steps to protect themselves and their families, and so they can take action to reduce pollution in their communities," EPA administrator Carol Browner told the Congressional Black Caucus.

The administration has nearly doubled (to 643) the number of chemicals that companies must report annually under the Toxics Release Inventory program. It has increased by 30 percent (to more 31,000) the number of industrial facilities required to make such information public, and it proposed putting pollution information on several key industries - oil products, steel and other metals, autos, and paper - on the Web.

The administration has cracked down on illegal polluters by issuing record fines. And while it has encouraged companies to comply with antipollution laws by lowering or waiving such fines in many cases, it strongly opposes what Assistant Attorney General Lois Schiffer called a "polluter secrecy act."

Law-enforcement officials around the country also are against any self-audit policy that could hide wrong-doing.

Representing the National District Attorneys Association, District Attorney General Victor Johnson of Nashville, Tenn., told a Senate subcommittee: "Prosecutors need to be free to pursue the environmental outlaw."

Privileged information, as defined by law, should remain limited to husbands and wives, attorneys and clients, members of the clergy and their parishioners, says another official with the district attorneys group.