What Toxic Chemicals Are Released In Your Neighborhood?

Published Jul 15, 2005

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced plans to dramatically scale back the reporting requirements of its TRI program. If adopted, the "TRI Burden Reduction Proposed Rule" would take away an important tool that has allowed everyday people, government officials, and physicians to protect public health and the environment.

Americans have a right to know what toxic chemicals are being released in their communities. For almost twenty years, the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) program has required companies and federal facilities of a certain size to provide annual reports of their releases of toxic chemicals into our land, water, and air. The program has been extremely successful in making communities around the country safer and healthier. This year, the EPA reported that, over the last five years alone, the program has helped decrease the disposal and release of the 660 chemicals it currently tracks by 42 percent.

In spite of this past success, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced plans to dramatically scale back the reporting requirements of its TRI program. If adopted, the "TRI Burden Reduction Proposed Rule" would take away an important tool that has allowed everyday people, government officials, and physicians to protect public health and the environment.The EPA proposed three changes to TRI reporting requirements that would allow tens of thousands of facilities to report less information:

  • Move from the current annual reporting requirements to every-other-year reporting for all facilities, eliminating half of all TRI data. Many facilities show huge shifts in emissions from year to year and could concentrate emissions during non-reporting years. For example, when data from 2001 and 2003 are used to estimate figures for 2002, a majority of the estimates differ from the real data by 50 percent or more.
  • Allow facilities to release 10 times as much pollution before being required to report how much toxic chemicals were produced and where they went. This provision would raise the maximum Annual Reportable Amount from 500 to 5,000 pounds.
  • Permit facilities to withhold details on low-level production of persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT) chemicals like mercury, lead, and dioxin. This provision would essentially withhold information from the public on the release of what the EPA has identified as "chemicals of special concern." Persistent chemicals do not break down. Bioaccumulative chemicals can build up in the food chain to levels that are dangerous. PBT Chemicals can travel long distances, transfer between air, water, and land, and remain dangerous and intact for long periods of time. These chemicals are particularly harmful to children and developing fetuses.

Each year brings dozens of new examples of communities that have been protected by the TRI from dangerous chemicals such as lead, mercury, and chromium. In 2003, after the Chicago Tribune published TRI data from a local brass foundry, a local activist group was formed that successfully negotiated protection for residents from extremely elevated levels of lead. In Louisville, TRI data was critical in convincing local officials to pass a new clear-air program.  And in Alaska, a group used TRI data to garner media attention regarding pollution levels in the Cook Inlet.

In many instances, a positive relationship has been built among community members and local corporations.  In fact, TRI reporting has become so ingrained in companies' business practices that Boeing has reported that TRI reporting is simply "good business practice" as it allows them to track the company's use of chemicals and their loss to the environment.  Below are several case studies illustrating the importance and success of the TRI.

When TRI data in 1989 revealed Sheldahl, Inc. of southern Minnesota to be among the nation's worst industrial emitters of airborne carcinogens, several local groups and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) joined forces to influence the company to protect the health of community laborers and residents. Though the ACTWU had been deeply concerned about its workers' exposure to carcinogens for years, the outcry from local community members after TRI data alerted them to possible exposure provided a catalyst for substantive change. Contract negotiations between Sheldahl and ACTWU resulted in an agreement to reduce emissions by 90 percent over a three-year period. The company also invested in the development of a non-toxic alternative to a widely used carcinogenic product in its manufacturing process. "Before the contract, many people didn't have confidence that Sheldahl would reduce its use of toxics," said Eric Frumin, ACTWU National Health and Safety Director. "The new contract puts the union in position to enforce use reduction.  The union acts as [the] EPA."

Boulder County, Colorado has long been known for its fresh Rocky Mountain air. However, when media coverage of TRI data exposed Syntex Chemicals Corporation (now Roche), a pharmaceutical company, as Boulder County's largest source of toxic air emissions, local residents were appalled to learn of the extent of the air pollution in their area. Over the next year, Colorado community members worked to encourage Syntex to reduce emissions. Though negotiations got off to a slow start, Syntex eventually initiated a good neighbor agreement to mitigate public health concerns and substantially reduce emissions over a three-year period. The company also pledged to establish an advisory panel to monitor Syntex's progress. Though the agreement was not perfect, a 2004 study by the University of Colorado found the good neighbor agreement to be generally effective in substantially reducing air emissions. 

Federal and state policy makers need access to adequate information if they are to make informed decisions that protect our health, safety, and environment. The Toxics Release Inventory continues to be an essential tool that assists communities in curbing toxic pollution. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, government officials, residents, and other groups used TRI data to identify potential sources of toxic storm-related releases. The Gulf Coast emergency highlights the need for more—not less—information on the release of chemical hazards in order to help prepare for any future disasters.