The Society of Environmental Journalists will oppose EPA's proposal to reduce the amount of data reported under the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), calling on EPA to abandon its Oct. 4, 2005, proposal. SEJ plans to file its official comments before the rulemaking docket closes on Jan. 13, 2006.
Only two days before the deadline, a Freedom of Information Act request uncovered an unusual behind-the-scenes collusion between EPA rulemakers doing the toxics data cutbacks and officials at the Small Business Administration (SBA) whose job is to advocate business interests. The Administrative Procedures Act, which governs federal rulemaking, requires such interaction to be open and on the record.
"Is Industry Pulling EPA's Strings?" asked the headline in the "OMB Watcher," a biweekly issued by the nonprofit group OMB Watch. Correspondence obtained by the group strongly suggests that while EPA went through a show of public consultation in 2002-2004, its positions were being written by Kevin Bromberg of the SBA advocacy office, a former industry lobbyist.
The revelation came as political opposition to EPA's proposal mounted. On Nov. 10, 2005, six senators wrote a letter on the record to the EPA administrator voicing strong concerns that the proposal would deny citizens needed information and asking EPA for more detailed information on how its proposal would affect data users. The six senators were James Jeffords (I-VT), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Hilary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), Barak Obama (D-IL), and John McCain (R-AZ).
As of this week, more than 1,500 comments had poured in to the official docket on EPA's proposal, which would ease thresholds so more companies could qualify to use the TRI "short form" and avoid any numerical reporting of their emissions. Most opposed the rule, which EPA put forth with a separate proposal to cut the current yearly frequency of reporting so companies would only have to report every other year.
One opponent of the rule argued that it would violate U.S. treaty obligations under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Talli Nauman of the New Mexico-based International Relations Center said the US "is bound to improve its environmental standards and harmonize them with the other signatory parties, Canada and Mexico." Mexico's equivalent of TRI, the Pollutant Release and Transfer Register, is just getting under way. Nauman is an SEJ member.
SEJ, in its own comments, will emphasize the importance of TRI as a tool for environmental journalists doing local stories. SEJ will also argue that EPA failed to meet the legal requirements for rulemaking under the Administrative Procedures Act (full disclosure) and Executive Order 12866 (cost-benefit analysis).
Once finalized and filed, SEJ's comments on the rule will be posted here.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, OMB Watch got copies of a two-inch stack of correspondence between Bromberg of the SBA Advocacy Office and EPA officials responsible for the TRI. The correspondence documents the key role Bromberg played in setting EPA's agenda for "burden reduction." Before coming to work for SBA, Bromberg headed the Small Business Coalition for a Responsible Toxic Release Inventory Policy. That group lobbied for the 1994 rulemaking that set up EPA's "short form," Form A.
The documents obtained by OMB Watch show that at least 14 meetings took place between Bromberg and EPA officials beginning in late 2002, in which Bromberg pushed for a set of changes which EPA presented to the public as its options for TRI reform. EPA eventually adopted three out of his four main requests. OMB Watch said the documents "suggest a high degree of cooperation" between Bromberg and EPA. For example, Bromberg was brought in to brief new EPA employees working on TRI, and he helped EPA prepare its slideshow for a stakeholder briefing.
During the years 2002-2004, EPA made an elaborate production of a "stakeholder dialogue" on TRI reform. But the newly revealed correspondence suggests that behind-the-scenes lobbying by Bromberg had more influence on EPA's decision than the open meetings and comments of the stakeholder dialogue.
"I think it is outrageous that EPA appears to have permitted SBA, an industry advocacy agency, to climb into the driver's seat in changing the nation's premier environmental database on industrial pollution," said Sean Moulton, a policy analyst at OMB Watch.