The Bush administration found itself confronted with stinging political criticism during December 2005 in at least 20 states for a proposed cutback in disclosure of toxic hazards. The administration now faces a stark decision on whether the political costs of telling the public less about toxic hazards are indeed worth the political benefits to be gained.
Those cutbacks in the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) have been urged by industry groups which have supported President Bush and the GOP and advanced by EPA as a reporting and paperwork "burden reduction" for the industries. EPA estimates that its proposal would save about $7.4 million for the industries.
The latest proposals come in two parts: one increases the number of companies that can submit a short form with no numerical information; the other (which will not be in play until next year) changes the current requirement for yearly reporting to require reporting only every other year.
A coalition of environmental, public health, and right-to-know groups called for EPA to withdraw the proposals altogether, and mounted a letter-writing and lobbying campaign that has already gained allies on Capitol Hill.
Although EPA showed no immediate signs of backing off on its proposals, it agreed on Nov. 29, 2005, to extend the deadline for comments on the proposal from Dec. 5, 2005, until January 13, 2006. That gave opponents more time to organize.
The proposals were hardly helped by the Nov. 30, 2005, resignation of Kimberly Nelson, the Assistant Administrator in charge of the Office of Environmental Information. Nelson, a long-time career civil servant, had won some respect from most players in the TRI battle and was the architect of the latest round of proposals. Her departure had been anticipated for some time; she took a job with the Microsoft Corp. Finding and confirming someone with as much credibility as Nelson may prove difficult for the administration strengthening the impression that TRI changes are being pushed primarily by political operatives at the White House.
Many industries had long been accustomed to TRI reporting, which began back in 1987. By all accounts, the program had worked as intended to reduce industry emissions without regulation by force of publicity and public pressure. But the Clinton-era EPA provoked industry ire by expanding the list of chemicals to be reported and industries covered. The addition of electric utilities, who had to report mercury emissions for the first time, sparked pressure for mercury regulation.
Maddest of all was the mining industry, added to the TRI program in the late 1990s. As the Bush administration came to power, they had powerful friends well-situated in Congress particularly Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA), who chairs the House Resources Committee. That panel, loaded with members from western mining states like NV, CO, NM, AZ, WY, UT, CA, etc., has given EPA a hard time about TRI.
EPA's "burden reduction" proposals for TRI were formed as early as 2002-2003 after a "stakeholder dialogue." They came in two phases, with the second and current one the one most likely to prompt grassroots political backlash delayed until after the 2004 election.
The environmental and public health groups have picked up significant allies including labor groups and emergency first-responders' groups. Rather than merely rely on EPA to withdraw its regulatory proposals, they are seeking help from Congress, which can overrule EPA regulations.
It has also become a media issue and, more importantly, a major story. Naturally, journalists and journalism groups tend to support public access to information, but right-to-know stories do not always get front-page play. This one has. Coverage of the public health groups' Dec. 1 press conference was substantial. Then on Dec. 13, 2005, the Associated Press started running a major feature package on air toxics exposure by David Pace. This one had some 30 state sidebars prompting an outpouring of local-origin followups by newspapers all over the country. The next day AP reporter John Heilprin had a story pointing out that the AP's first story was built on a foundation of TRI data and that the administration was poised to make such stories harder.
"If the Bush administration has its way," Heilprin's lead read, "some factories won't have to report all the pollution spewed from their smokestacks, making it harder for government scientists to calculate the health risks of the air Americans breathe."
And THAT story had been picked up by several major networks and over 40 newspapers as this WatchDog went to press.
- Previous Story: WatchDog of Nov. 30, 2005.
- "Dismantling the Public's Right to Know: EPA's Systematic Weakening of the Toxics Release Inventory," OMB Watch, Dec. 1, 2005, by Sean Moulton, Cheryl Gregory, et al.
- "Undisclosed Pollution: Local Impacts of the Bush Administration's Attack on the Toxics Release Inventory Program," US-PIRG, December 2005, by Meghan Purvis. Includes state-by-state analysis and data on impacts of EPA's TRI cutbacks.
- National Environmental Trust: TRI Cutbacks Web page includes audio of Dec. 1, 2005, press briefing; national and state data on impacts; fact sheets and backgrounders; source lists and contacts; and press release.
- "Thousands of Firms Could Stop Reporting Emissions," Los Angeles Times, December 2, 2005, by Marla Cone.
- "EPA Proposes Revamped Toxic-Emissions Reporting," Richmond Times-Dispatch, Dec 7, 2005, by Rex Springston.
- To read the electronic docket on this decision, point your browser at Regulations.gov. You can find the docket by limiting your search to the Environmental Protection Agency and searching for the keyword "Toxics Release Inventory." The docket ID is EPA-HQ-TRI-2005-0073 and the EDOCKET legacy ID is TRI-2005-0073.