GAO: OMB Compelled EPA to Rush Toxic Release Rule

A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report points out the EPA was pressured by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to rush through a rule-making process that would allow more than 3,500 facilities to not disclose the amount of toxic chemicals they produce, store and discharge.

The EPA hurried through a series of steps to finalize the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Burden Reduction Final Rule in order to meet OMB’s deadline in reducing “the reporting burden on industry” for small businesses, GAO said. The schedule did not allow the EPA to:

  • Meet the guideline’s provisions to complete economic analyses;
  • Evaluate the costs and benefits of the changes; or
  • Seek adequate input from EPA program offices that rely heavily on TRI data.

The rule, which was issued by the EPA Dec. 22, 2006, raised the release threshold from 500 pounds to 2,000 pounds for any toxic chemical. This means that facilities – as many as 3,500 – discharging less than 2,000 pounds of toxic chemicals no longer need to provide detailed information about their chemical releases.

Rule Reduces Environmental Info Available to Communities

The change, the GAO said, would result in making more than 22,000 of the nearly 90,000 TRI reports unavailable to hundreds of communities throughout the country. In addition, many commenters, including the attorneys general of 12 states and EPA’s Science Advisory Board, stated that the changes would significantly reduce the amount of useful TRI information.

Key users such as environmental researchers, local advocacy groups and even the Internal Revenue Service have used TRI data to assess environmental strategies and design pollution prevention initiatives.

Prior to the rulemaking, facilities that manufactured, processed or used any of the 581 individual chemicals and 30 chemical categories had to report the amount released into the air, soil or water to the EPA and their respective state on an annual basis, as dictated by the old Toxic Release Inventory law. Former President Ronald Reagan signed the law after the 1984 Union Carbide chemical disaster in Bhopal India killed between 2,500 and 5,000 people.

The report noted that EPA estimated that businesses would save close to $6 million from the reduced reporting burden, a figure GAO said was inflated by as much as 25 percent and based on outdated information from OMB.

Lautenberg: Legislation Needed to Overturn Rule

Sen. Frank Lautenberg D-N.J., and Sen. Barbara Boxer D-Calif., said the report demonstrates the need for Congress to approve legislation to overturn EPA’s rules weakening toxic reporting requirements that had been in place for nearly two decades. The report was prepared at their request.

“People who live near chemical facilities have a right to know about the potential poisons released into their air and water,” Lautenberg said.

In response to the report’s release, EPA disagreed with GAO’s conclusions, claiming they implemented the December 2006 TRI rule to “put into place important incentives to reduce chemical emissions and increase recycling and treatment as alternatives to disposal and other releases.”

Furthermore, the agency said that when it was considering the costs and savings associated with the rule, it consulted with various stakeholders and completed “a thorough evaluation of the uses of TRI data and associated economic and policy issues.”

Before the public release of the GAO report, auditors submitted a draft to OMB and EPA. EPA rejected GAO’s initial recommendation to fully evaluate the costs and benefits of not requiring certain companies to disclose their use of toxic chemicals. GAO now recommends that Congress consider legislation to reverse the EPA rule.

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