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EPA Rule 'Absurd,' Critics Say

While EPA hails its Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) final rule as an incentive for businesses to use "preferred waste management methods" such as recycling, the advocacy group OMB Watch believes that the agency's rule failed to take into consideration "the overwhelming opposition to EPA's ill-conceived ideas to reduce TRI reporting."

EPA on Dec. 18 issued a final rule that will make it easier for companies to be eligible to use a shorter, less-detailed reporting form – known as "Form A" – and, for the first time in TRI's history, will allow some companies that handle persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) chemicals to use Form A.

"The TRI program was designed to inform citizens and communities about what is going on in their backyards," Clayton Northouse, information policy analyst at OMB Watch, said during a Dec. 14 conference call. "It's clear that EPA is not reducing the burden but is merely shifting the burden from industrial facilities to families living near facilities, increasing their risk of exposure to dangerous toxic chemicals."

Northouse, along with Sean Moulton, director of federal information policy for OMB Watch, co-authored a report titled "Against the Public's Will," which offers an analysis of the comments submitted to EPA during the rulemaking process. According to the report, of the 122,420 comments EPA received during the public comment period, 122,386 – or 99.97 percent – expressed opposition to all of the changes that EPA proposed for TRI.

Only 34 comments – or .03 percent of the total comments received – "expressed even some degree of support for the proposal," Moulton said.

"This is a clear case of the agency disregarding the will of the American people," Moulton said. "The EPA has no scientific or health data supporting the changes they want to make – nothing to assure the public will still be safe. Instead, the agency is just interested in saving polluting companies a few dollars, at the possible expense of public health."

Moulton: EPA Has Not Done its Homework

Among the common themes expressed during the public comment period, according to OMB Watch, were that the EPA rules:

  • Would hinder the ability of government agencies and communities to protect the environment and public health and safety;
  • Would reduce public health professionals' ability to diagnose diseases related to toxic chemicals, including many environmentally caused cancers; and
  • Offer no significant burden relief or financial savings for companies that are required to report to TRI.

"These are all important issues that EPA should have a better answer to than 'We don't think these problems will arise,'" Moulton said. "The fact of the matter is that EPA cannot adequately address these issues because they have simply not done their homework on these proposals."

Pallone: Industry Isn't Clamoring for Changes to TRI

Moulton noted that the resistance to EPA's changes has come from other sources, including the Environmental Council of States and members of Congress.

Among the most outspoken critics of EPA's proposals has been U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., who, along with U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., earlier this year introduced an amendment to the fiscal year 2007 Interior-Environment Appropriations Act aimed at preventing EPA from finalizing its proposal. According to a statement issued jointly by Solis and Pallone, the amendment passed in the House and is awaiting final action by both the House and the Senate.

When EPA issued its final rule on Dec. 18, Pallone called the decision "absurd."

"For 20 years, the TRI program has successfully provided communities with critical information about what is being dumped in their backyards, while also encouraging companies to voluntarily reduce their emissions," Pallone said. "[EPA's] decision is a step backwards and needlessly limits the amount of information community residents can receive about the chemicals present near their homes. Even under the changed requirements, companies will still have to track their releases, so there is really no good reason why the Bush administration should not continue to provide this helpful information to interested communities."

During a Dec. 14 conference call hosted by OMB Watch, Pallone said he found EPA's efforts to relax the TRI reporting requirements perplexing – particularly because "there's no clamor for it, that I know of, even from the industry itself."

"Industry itself has never indicated that they have any problem with the current law or with the ability to comply with the current law, so I really don't understand where this is coming from," Pallone said. "I hope it's not just a manifestation of the Bush administration and the current EPA just wanting to make things easier for industry just without reason, because I know that the people I talk to within the industry really don't have a problem with the current law."

U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., earlier in the week said that OMB Watch's report "underscores the depth and breadth of opposition to the Bush administration's proposals to gut the TRI program." He also promised, if EPA issued its final rule, to "work with my colleagues in the House and the Senate to reverse that decision."

TRI is a "Critical Public Health Tool"

Alex Fidis, staff attorney for U.S. PIRG (the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups), called TRI a "critical public health tool," because "the 650-plus toxic chemicals in TRI are not benign."

"They are chemicals that harm human health – substances like asbestos, dioxin, arsenic, mercury and benzene, just to name a few of the better-known and more easily pronounceable toxics," Fidis said.

Fidis noted that public access to TRI helps people make "very fundamental and basic choices such as where to live, what parks to let [their] children play in or other precautions that might need to be taken."

Fidis asserted that TRI has "empowered" individuals and communities to "address local sources of toxic pollution solely by providing these communities with information about where the toxic releases are." He also said that TRI has been used "to address hot spots of toxic contamination" and "to help enforce environmental and public health laws."

"The Toxics Release Inventory is the only national data source that provides this information," Fidis said. " … If anything, the EPA needs to expand the public's right to know and not diminish it."

EPA Rule is "Completely and Utterly Wrong-Headed"

EPA initially proposed allowing companies that manage or release up to 5,000 pounds of toxic chemicals to be eligible to use the shorter Form A for TRI reporting. However, EPA says that the public comments it received convinced the agency to lower that threshold to 2,000 pounds – which still is higher than the previous threshold of 500 pounds.

According to Moulton, such a concession will not make "the concerns raised by the public, Congress, states and other stakeholders" go away.

"This is not a question of trying to get the threshold increase right," Moulton said. "The reality is that the TRI program does not have a problem with reporting thresholds being too low, nor did it have a problem with the reporting being too frequent. The EPA [rule changes] are completely and utterly wrong-headed. They simply head down the wrong path for such an effective and useful program. The agency needs to go back to the drawing board and find a burden reduction proposal that does not leave the public in the dark about toxics in their community."

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