A fight over easing rules for reporting toxic emissions

The EPA plan would help small businesses reduce paperwork.

Gracie Lewis is on a crusade to save the Toxics Release Inventory, a trove of federal pollution data vital to helping her - and activists nationwide - win community battles for cleaner air and water.

Until a couple of years ago, Mrs. Lewis was at her wits' end over the stew of chemical odors wafting into her home from nearby factories in the industrial heart of Louisville, Ky., a neighborhood known as "Rubbertown."

Though she still smells them today, the city now has a plan for beating back toxic emissions, in part because of TRI data gathered annually by the Environmental Protection Agency, she says. With those crucial numbers in hand, she and other activists can ferret out companies releasing harmful chemicals. "Once we smell it, we call the odor hot line," she says.

But that ability to check the numbers may be changing as the EPA mulls over whether to lower the TRI reporting requirements. Small businesses have welcomed the proposal because it eliminates extra paperwork. But Lewis, environmentalists, and first responders have become part of a vocal national backlash since the changes were first proposed in September. These groups argue they would lose vital data and would not be able to hold polluters accountable.

"The administration's recommendation is dangerous and cavalier and should be withdrawn or blocked by Congress," opined the Columbian, a daily newspaper in Clark County, Wash., in October.

Under the new EPA plan, TRI reporting would be done once every other year instead of annually. It would also substantially raise the thresholds for amounts of many toxic emissions that have to be reported - from 500 to 5,000 pounds. But it would save millions of dollars in paper shuffling by small businesses that emit little pollution anyway, EPA officials say.

"EPA's proposal would collect 99 percent of the same data and allow small businesses to meet their reporting obligations to EPA in a more streamlined way," says Eryn Witcher, the agency's press secretary.

But in a teleconference last Thursday, environmentalists, first responders, and health advocates unveiled an analysis showing that under the new EPA plan, at least 922 communities nationwide - more than 10 percent of the nation's ZIP Codes - would lose all numerical TRI data on local polluters, according to the National Environmental Trust, an environmental group in Washington.

In Kentucky, at least 13 ZIP Codes would no longer receive TRI data under the new EPA proposal. In Jefferson County, Ky., 15 of some 75 TRI facilities would not have to report data if the plan is implemented, the NET analysis shows. In the county, data on 45 tons of toxic releases would not have been reported if the EPA's proposed standards had been in place, says the NET study.

"The EPA plan would result in an inaccurate picture of pollution at the local level, hamper our ability to prepare for emergencies, and provide an incentive for facilities to pollute more in our communities," says Tom Natan, director of research for the NET.

Besides the 3,849 out of 21,489 TRI facilities nationwide that would be excluded from reporting toxic release data, another 1,608 among the 8,927 ZIP Codes with TRI facilities across the country would have the reportable amounts cut in half, Dr. Natan says.

Many activists say it is not time to decrease reporting requirements because the TRI program continues to be effective. It is widely credited with helping reduce almost 65 percent of toxic chemical releases since its inception, Natan says. And more, not less, information is needed on industrial toxic releases, many activists say. They point to the chemical soup generated by industrial facilities after hurricane Katrina struck; a big benzene spill in China last month; and a chemical spill that killed more than 2,000 in Bhopal, India, in 1984.

The TRI program came into existence under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986, in the aftermath of the tragedy in India and a chemical spill in West Virginia. The act mandates that emissions of toxic chemicals be made public. Today, more than 23,000 facilities nationwide report the release of about 650 chemicals in the air and water, as well as those deposited in landfills.

But groups like the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents smaller companies, have a different view of the situation. They've been pushing for EPA revisions to TRI.

"This has been a top-tier issue for our members, and we've worked closely with folks at EPA to see some manner of TRI reform," says Andrew Langer, NFIB's manager of regulatory policy.

"It's simply not true," he says of the claim that businesses might emit more in nonreporting years. "Small businesses are not going to drastically change their operations to hide their emissions."

In Louisville, the American Bluegrass Marble Company has struggled with the EPA's red tape. According to the NET data, the 50-employee company, which makes marble vanity tops and other bathroom fixtures, would be among those let off the hook by new EPA rules.

In 2003, the company reported emitting 14 pounds of styrene, a chemical used in sealants, into the atmosphere. Despite this low level, it took employee James Feeney and a hired consultant a week to fill out the TRI paperwork, he said.

"I won't say it's a hardship, but it's been expensive, and the company has had to hire a consultant just to figure the paperwork out," he says. "If we were exempted, it would be great. Some of the things EPA has made us do are just ridiculous."

In Maryland, some first responders and environmentalists are worried because the EPA plan would mean losing all TRI data in 15 ZIP Codes.

"We need all the information we can get," says Mike Donahue, battalion chief for the Montgomery County Fire Rescue Services. "I'm opposed to the plan" to squeeze back the TRI, he adds.

The comment period on the proposed changes ends Jan. 13.

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