Feb. 15, 2006 – With the Environmental Protection Agency poised to significantly alter the list of toxic chemicals in need of close monitoring, a new study shows that its current requirements fall far short of protecting the public.
According to the Environmental Working Group, the EPA fails to require adequate tracking of at least ten toxic pollutants, in some cases declining to do any tracking at all.
The ten chemicals range in the danger they pose to the public, but all are classified as persistent bioaccumulative toxics (PBTs) by the EPA because they are regularly released into the environment and accumulate in people, plants and animals. Among the PBTs not well-tracked are coal tar, anthracene and chlorobenzene, all industrial byproducts, EWG found.
Medical tests by the federal government, the Red Cross and hospitals found some of the toxins appear regularly in people, with half of all fetal umbilical-cord blood samples showing anthracene contamination, EWG reported. Half of the chemicals identified by EWG are commonly found in drinking water.
The groupâ€™s study analyzed and compiled the results of millions of tests in concluding that the EPA has already undermined its toxic-chemical reporting requirements.
"The persistent, toxic chemicals we identified in this study are important, heavily used industrial substances," EWG Vice President Richard Wiles said in a statement accompanying the reportâ€™s release. "At the very least, Americans have a right to know if companies are releasing these pollutants into their communities. In fact, we should have begun tracking these pollutants years ago. Instead of curbing reports on the most worrisome pollutants to please industry, the Bush administration should be expanding the tracking system to inform and protect the public."
As previously reported by The NewStandard, last year, the EPA proposed changes to its Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) program that would change some chemical classifications, loosen pollutant reporting thresholds and mandate that companies report toxin levels every two years, rather than every year as is currently the case.
The 20-year-old TRI is a public database that keeps track of industrial chemicals released into the environment. Under the current rules, companies must fully report annual releases of 500 pounds or more of most industrial chemicals.
Community-based environmental advocates have found the TRI a crucial tool for monitoring companies in their areas and finding out about public health threats.
The EPAâ€™s proposed changes would multiply that baseline by ten, to 5,000 pounds, a change the National Environmental Trust (NET) charged will "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 in our communities." NET is a progressive, nonprofit environmental education group.
In its own analysis, NET called the TRI the nationâ€™s "flagship environmental â€˜right-to-knowâ€™ program" and warned that if enacted, EPAâ€™s new rules would benefit businesses at the expense of communities and the nationâ€™s future environmental health. NET found that the changes would leave nearly 1,000 communities bereft of information about local polluters because those companies would no longer be required to report their toxic discharges.
According to a study conducted jointly by NET and state Public Interest Research Groups released last December, the effects of the relaxation would be widespread. Under the proposed rules, 3,849 polluting facilities throughout the 26 states included in the study would no longer be required to provide specific information about the toxins they release.
The EPAâ€™s proposed rule, known as TRI Burden Reduction, is now in the second phase, which began after public comments closed on January 13. It gives the Agency time to assess comments, studies and other information presented before refining the regulatory change. In a series of Agency-posed questions and answers about the second phase of the proposal, the EPA said it intends to further reduce company chemical-pollution reporting requirements in the future.
While the federal government may be seeking to lessen the reporting burden for companies and streamline its own regulatory workload, several state and local officials are stepping forward advocate for their communities.
According to information collected by the government watchdogs at OMB Watch, the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania health commissioner and head of the Miami-Dade, Florida County government have both come out against the changes. Late last month, California Assembly member Ira Ruskin (Dâ€“Redwood City) announced plans to block the EPA from using the new rules in California, OMB Watch noted.