Missoula and the rest of the nation will soon be receiving less information about the toxic chemicals being released into local communities, due to new regulations finalized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Dec. 18, despite overwhelming public opposition.
The “Burden Reduction Rule” governing the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program, which catalogues information about more than 650 toxic chemicals released annually from nearly 24,000 facilities nationwide, reduces the level of detail such facilities must report. Currently, for annual releases totaling more than 500 pounds, polluters must fill out a five-page form that includes the name of the chemical and amounts released; a simpler two-page form that includes the chemical name but not the specific amount released can be used for annual releases under 500 pounds. The new rule raises that threshold to 2,000 pounds, raising fourfold the bar by which full reporting is triggered. According to the EPA, the rule change also signals the first time the simpler form can be used for releases of up to 500 pounds of PBT chemicals (persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals, such as lead and mercury), which have heretofore been fully reported.
EPA Deputy Press Secretary Jessica Emond tells the Independent the changes will “make a good program better” by encouraging polluters to reduce emissions to under 2,000 pounds so they can save time and effort, and thus money, by using the less detailed reporting form.
But many, including Montana Department of Environmental Quality Director Richard Opper, say the abridgment of public information will be the rule change’s chief outcome.
“What it affects is the ability of the public to access information about what’s being released in their back yards, and I just don’t think that’s the direction for the EPA to head,” Opper says.
In response to Emond’s statement that the new rule provides incentive for companies to hold releases below the 2,000-pound threshold, Opper says the flip side is that facilities now below the 500-pound threshold could increase releases of a particular chemical to 1,999 pounds without reporting the spike.
“I don’t know how it improves a program to generate less data for citizens, so I fundamentally disagree with [Emond’s] principle,” Opper says.
In Missoula County, the change will likely affect four of five facilities that currently report to the TRI program. The latest available TRI data is from 2004, when 45 facilities statewide reported releasing more than 61 million pounds of toxic chemicals into Montana’s air, ground and water. The five facilities reporting 2004 releases in Missoula County totaled about 1.9 million pounds.
The Missoula facilities are Stone Container Corp., which released 1.67 million pounds; Roseburg Forest Products, which released about 218,000 pounds; Hexion Specialty Chemicals Inc., which released about 19,300 pounds; Conoco Missoula Product Terminal, which released about 8,000 pounds; and Stimson Lumber Company, which released about 580 pounds. Judging by the 2004 TRI data, four of five Conoco facility chemicals once subject to full reporting will be eligible for streamlined reporting under the new rule; Roseburg Forest Product’s reporting of the PBT chemical lead can be simplified; Stimson Lumber Company’s reported release of lead compounds now falls below the rule’s new threshold; four PBT chemicals released by Stone Container now fall below the PBT threshold for full reporting. It appears the new rule won’t affect Hexion Specialty Chemicals Inc., because its releases of particular chemicals remain either well above or below the new threshold. Representatives from all of Missoula’s reporting facilities failed to return calls seeking comment on the EPA change by this story’s deadline.
Tom Ellerhoff, Montana’s TRI coordinator, says Congress established the TRI program in 1986 after a pesticide plant in India shocked the world by releasing toxins that killed 2,850 people and injured more than 20,000. The subsequent Emergency Planning and Right-to-Know Act mandated creation of the TRI, now a database that can be searched online at www.epa.gov/tri by zip code or state to learn about dangerous chemicals being released into local air, water or landfills.
Alexandra Gorman, director of science and research at Missoula nonprofit Women’s Voices for the Earth, says her group has used TRI data for years to track progress or lack thereof in the amounts of pollutants discharged from local facilities.
“With the new rule, you won’t know if it’s 1,999 pounds or 10 pounds, and that makes a huge difference,” Gorman says.
In regard to the change allowing PBT discharges to remain unspecified as long as they remain below 500 pounds, Gorman says the handful of chemicals dangerous enough to be specially classified as PBTs haven’t become any safer.
“We had a good reason for reporting them at these smaller amounts, and there’s no reason to make the threshold higher all of a sudden,” Gorman says.
She also questions how much work polluting facilities will actually be saved by the lowering of reporting standards, since polluters will still have to measure and calculate releases to ensure they’re staying below the 2,000-pound threshold. Regardless, she says, “Clean air and water are important values in Montana, and we shouldn’t be reducing the burden to pollute. It should be a difficult thing to do.”
While Gorman and representatives of environmental groups nationwide predictably have decried EPA’s recent announcement, they aren’t the only ones.
OMB Watch, a national nonprofit that advocates government accountability and watchdogs the White House Office of Management and Budget, analyzed the more than 122,000 public comments EPA received on the rule-change proposal.
OMB Watch reports that 99.97 percent of commenters, including 23 state governments, more than 60 members of Congress and 30 public health organizations strongly opposed the changes, and only 34 commenters supported the proposal. Additionally, in May 2006 the House of Representatives passed a resolution preventing EPA from implementing the change, though that resolution is attached to an appropriations bill on which the U.S. Senate has yet to act; two U.S. senators placed a hold on Bush administration nominees for the EPA to protest the proposal; and EPA’s own Science Advisory Board formally opposed the rule change, which EPA’s Emond says will go into effect Jan. 22.
Opper, whose opposition to the proposal was reflected in a resolution endorsed by the Environmental Council of States, an association of state environmental agencies, sums up: “If everyone seems to hate this change, it’s probably for a good reason. I’m still baffled as to why EPA decided to head in this direction, as are most folks.”
The broad-brush answer to that question, Opper says, likely rests with President Bush, to whom EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, who’s led the federal agency since May 2005, directly reports.
“It’s pretty clear that there’s a political element here,” Opper says.