Washington insiders learned at a briefing Sept. 21, 2005, that the Bush administration has notified Congress that it will propose cutting down the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program, one of the mainstays of environmental information for nearly two decades, and the only systematic inventory of toxic substance releases to the environment.
Under TRI, industries handling certain toxic materials in amounts above certain thresholds have to estimate and report every year on the amount they release into the environment. The releases, which may be harmful to human health, are in many cases unregulated. The rationale behind the 1986 TRI law was that public awareness of the toxic releases would bring public pressure on industry to reduce them. By most accounts, that strategy has worked. TRI has been a key tool for environmental journalists.
Environmentalist and industry stakeholders as well as Capitol Hill staff were told in a series of briefings that EPA plans to initiate rulemaking to reduce the TRI reporting frequency - so that instead of reporting every year, industries would only have to report every other year. Kim Nelson, EPA's Assistant Administrator for Environmental Information, said she chose that route over the option of allowing industries to report "no significant change."
EPA reportedly has already submitted parts of the proposed rulemaking to the Federal Register, although it had not yet been published as of Sept. 21 (some time-lag is normal). The proposal would also expand eligibility for industries to use TRI's short "Form A" rather than the longer "Form R" when reporting - reducing the amount of information collected by EPA and available to the public. The proposal would raise the reporting threshold for "persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic" (PBT) substances, from 500 to 5,000 pounds per year.
The 1986 law that created TRI, known as the Emergency Planning & Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) required EPA to notify Congress a year in advance, before proposing to change the reporting frequency by rulemaking. That letter went to Congress this week.
Senator Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement: "EPA is launching a frontal assault on the Toxics Release Inventory program...."
"Over 4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals are released into the nation's environment each year, including 72 million pounds of recognized carcinogens, from nearly 24,000 industrial facilities," Jeffords said. "This proposal would deny communities up-to-date information about local toxic releases, reduce incentives to minimize the generation of toxic waste and undermine the ability of public health agencies and researchers to identify important trends."
Sean Moulton, a policy analyst for OMB Watch, said the biennial reporting proposal would be in essence "cutting the program in half," and that it would "kill any ability to plot trends" in toxic releases, and called it "dangerous."
Nelson advanced the proposal as part of EPA's multi-year "burden reduction" program to ease reporting requirements on industry.
An EPA fact sheet said the proposal would save EPA $2 million in administrative costs, which could be reinvested in data quality. It also said the proposal would "provide regulatory relief to about 33% of TRI reporters - including small facilities that handle lead and have no releases, but must report because they meet threshold requirements."