Apr. 17, 2006 – Modest improvements reported in the governmentâ€™s latest analysis of chemical pollutants in American communities may have less to do with real reductions in pollution than with the gutting of the publicâ€™s "right to know," environmentalists say.
- Court Finds in Favor of Pollution Reporting Rules (Oct 27, 2005)
- Proposed Barriers to Pollution Oversight Alarm Watchdogs, Activists (Dec 8, 2005)
- EPA to Further Relax â€˜Weakâ€™ Toxin Rules (Feb 15, 2006)
Watchdogs further warn of efforts underway in the federal government to expand corporationsâ€™ power to conceal information about toxic threats.
According to the Environmental Protection Agencyâ€™s report on 2004 Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data, the 23,675 participating facilities, which include manufacturing plants and mining sites, churned out a total of over 4.24 billion pounds of toxic chemicals. Between 2003 and 2004, the EPA reported an overall decrease of 171 million pounds of chemicals released into the environment or otherwise disposed of.
But TRI releases increased in some industries. For the most-current core chemicals tracked by the TRI, pollution grew by about 10 percent in the food industry, 7 percent in the paper industry and 15 percent in the petroleum industry. Several states also reported increases in toxic releases and disposals, with Washington State's jump of 45 percent since 2003 leading the country.
The metal-mining sector, which contributed about one-quarter of total TRI disposals and releases, saw a sharp decrease in reported polluting and accounted for about 168 million pounds of the drop in overall reported quantities of toxics. But environmental groups note that much of that drop may be due to a recent relaxation of reporting requirements that exempts a major category of mine-related waste from being counted. The EPA itself conceded in its data summary that the 14 percent drop in TRI-reported mining pollution may reflect the new loophole.
In lawsuit brought by a major mining firm, a federal court decided in 2003 that the industry should not be subject to the vast majority of TRI reporting requirements for crushed-rock mining waste, as long as the waste rock contained less than one percent toxins.
Lauren Pagel of Earthworks, a group that opposes environmentally destructive metal-mining activities, said, "Just because theyâ€™re not reporting it doesnâ€™t mean there arenâ€™t mines out there that have toxic chemicals in their waste rock." Pagelâ€™s group argues that even low concentrations of toxics in massive quantities of waste rock each year could have a significant cumulative environmental impact.
Environmentalists concerned about skewed pollution reporting by the mining industry have also rallied in opposition to a recent initiative by the EPA to reduce TRI reporting requirements across the board. Rule changes proposed last year would alter the reporting schedule from annually to every other year, as well as loosen the thresholds that trigger reporting requirements.
In an analysis based on a geographical overlay of historical TRI data, the advocacy organization National Environmental Trust revealed that roughly 1,000 communities nationwide would lose access to all data on toxic releases from local facilities.
Critics of the proposal say that despite flaws in the TRI program, which now tracks about 650 different toxic substances, the federal mandate that corporations monitor and publicly report disclose toxic releases helps keep them accountable to neighboring communities. For the chemicals consistently tracked since the program began in the late 1980s, toxin disposals and releases have decreased by nearly 60 percent.
In a statement describing the new TRI data as "more troubling than reassuring," Tom Natan, director of research with the National Environmental Trust, said that with the pending rule changes, the EPA is "rewriting the rules for reporting toxics releases to favor polluters" such that "it would take even longer to determine what is actually happening, assuming that local facilities of concern even have to report."