IF people know the details about chemical contaminants in their community, they'll put the heat on polluting industries, which in turn will clean up their act. Public exposure, instead of bureaucratic red tape, will do the job.
That's the philosophy behind the federal "Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act," which has helped reduce chemical releases in the US by 43 percent since 1989.
But now supporters of the law worry that congressional efforts to reduce government regulations and cut agency budgets will undermine a law that even the chemical industry agrees has been good for the environment and for business. regulatory reform bill backed by Sens. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas and J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana would require the Environmental Protection Agency to assess relative risk before adding chemicals to the list that industries must report on every year. Critics say the measure would force the removal of some chemicals from the annual "Toxics Release Inventory" (TRI), required of 20,600 businesses.
"Some of my colleagues want to take one of the most successful laws we've ever passed - a law that everyone agrees is working - and put it in a regulatory straitjacket," says Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey, original author of the "right-to-know" law. "It's a paternalistic proposal that would have the Congress tell American communities that they shouldn't have the right to know about chemicals that can have a fundamental impact on their lives."
Those who support the proposed changes say they just want to make sure the law applies to chemicals that actually pose a threat.
"In many instances, the EPA listed chemicals on the TRI without regard to whether the public would actually be exposed to them or not," says Scott Trahan, spokesman for Senator Johnston, whose state has more chemical plants than anyplace in the country. "The only thing we're asking is for the EPA to look at the list again and apply the rule of reason to the chemicals they're listing. It doesn't really hamstring the EPA."
Since the right-to-know law passed in 1986, many grass-roots groups have used the TRI reports to publicize chemical releases. Formed in 1988, the "Working Group on Community Right-To-Know" has grown into a coalition of more than two dozen national environmental organizations and 1,500 state and local groups around the country.
Since chemical manufacturers often are located in poorer communities, TRI also has been particularly useful to the "environmental justice" movement, representing minority interests.
The chemical industry is proud of its pro-environment accomplishments. According to the Chemical Manufacturers Association, toxic releases from its member firms have dropped 49 percent since 1987 - even though industry production has risen 18 percent since then. In 1993, chemical releases into the air and water and on land dropped more than 12 percent, according to the EPA.
"We're seeing the payoff from a lot of hard work and money invested by the chemical industry in preventing pollution," says Fred Webber, president of the chemical industry trade group.
In a statement last week, the group declared that "CMA supports TRI and the public's right-to-know." But it also complained that the EPA fails to properly screen chemicals before listing, that the agency is "on weak scientific ground" with many of its additions to the list, and that the federal government is "slow to respond" to petitions to reevaluate listed chemicals.
Several additions and deletions brought EPA's original list of chemicals requiring reports to 313. But last November, the agency added another 286 chemicals to the list.
Senator Lautenberg acknowledges that "the TRI list is not perfect," and he concedes that "perhaps some chemicals should be removed." But the New Jersey Democrat and other supporters of the right-to-know law say requiring scientific risk assessment would add costly bureaucratic work to a measure that is only meant to let communities know what chemicals are being released - accidently or on purpose - into their environment.
Meanwhile, House budgeteers also could impact the chemical-reporting program. An appropriations subcommittee last week cut EPA spending 34 percent, which EPA administrator Carol Browner said would "eviscerate the TRI." The full House Appropriations Committee will take up the EPA spending bill tomorrow.