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Critics call EPA's new rule a loophole for big business

A new reporting rule, aimed to ease the burden on small firms, may instead help Ashland and other giant companies.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 20, 2006

In a bid to trim the regulatory burden on small businesses, the Environmental Protection Agency is set to relax the rules on what toxic chemicals they have to report.

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But in a twist, the EPA's newly revised Toxics Release Inventory rule will also make it possible for hundreds of large corporations to avoid reporting specific amounts of toxic chemicals they release into the air, land, or water, environmentalists warn.

The rule change has cheered small-business groups, generated widespread public opposition, and caught the eye of some Democratic congressmen, who will take control of Congress next month. It takes effect immediately.

The change affects companies that release relatively small amounts of toxic materials but still have to report them to the federal Toxics Release Inventory.

Under current TRI rules, companies have to report emissions of any toxic chemical that exceed 500 pounds in a year. Under the new rules, facilities could fill out a simpler form that omits reporting the amount of toxic chemicals if they created less than 5,000 pounds of it in a year and released no more than 2,000 pounds of it into the environment.

But the move makes it harder for neighborhoods or environmentalists to find out how much of a toxic chemical, such as toluene, a nearby factory is emitting. Researchers have linked toluene, used to make dyes and as a solvent, to various health problems. Similar streamlined reporting could be applied to another class of even more dangerous toxins if the waste was less than 500 pounds, entirely recycled, and not released at all.

Such limits spur business to reduce their toxic waste, federal officials contend. "EPA is delivering a cleaner, healthier nation by encouraging businesses to make environmental improvements now and in the future," Marcus Peacock, deputy EPA administrator said at a press conference to announce the new rule Monday.

EPA officials say the new TRI would save $6 million annually in unnecessary paperwork. Business groups back the measure.

"This move by the EPA will primarily assist small businesses that already release little or nothing into the environment at all from being overburdened with regulatory filings," says Andrew Langer, manager of regulatory policy for the National Federation of Independent Business, a Washington trade group.

But critics say the move seems to be an effort to weaken a reporting law that has empowered community activists with details about some 650 industrial chemicals that the TRI tracks. While TRI does not require emission controls, activists have used data to embarrass companies into cutting emissions.

"Americans who live near industrial facilities want to know what's going into their air and water," Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D) of New Jersey said during a recent teleconference with reporters.

The EPA move, which Mr. Pallone called a "terrible decision," could herald a wider battle with a new Democrat-controlled Congress with more intense oversight hearings examining EPA rulemaking in the new year, observers say. Legislation Pallone brought last year to cut funding for the TRI revision may be resurrected to block its implementation.