U.S. Eases Pollution-Reporting Requirements

The Bush administration sets new rules for companies that must give public accounts for the toxic pollution they release into the environment each year. Critics say the new standards will reduce how much the public can learn about that factory up the street.

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The Bush administration today released new rules on how companies must report toxic emissions to the public. The new rules will allow companies to release more chemicals without making detailed reports.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: In 1984, a toxic cloud released from a chemical plant in Bhopal, India, killed tens of thousands of people. That disaster gave birth to a program at the Environmental Protection Agency called The Toxic Release Inventory. The idea was to let the public know how much chemical pollution factories and other industrial facilities were emitting.

There's been no dispute that the program has been a powerful incentive to reduce emissions. Ken Gordon represents a big multinational chemical company called Ashland that's based in Covington, Kentucky.

Mr. KEN GORDON (Ashland Inc.): I mean, it makes the manufacturer aware, makes the community aware, everyone around them aware. And it brings focus on that and when you bring focus, it helps reduce those emissions. We constantly try to find ways to reduce, reuse, recycle.

SHOGREN: But the EPA now says that the reporting requirements have been too onerous. So it's increasing the amount of toxic chemicals companies can release without having to make detailed reports. Companies will still have to say whether they used the chemicals but they won't have to say whether they're releasing them into the water, air or land. The threshold from most chemicals will be 2,000 pounds. It used to be 500 pounds.

There's an exception. For the most toxic chemicals, companies will have to report any releases into the environment. EPA's Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock says the new rule provide an incentive for big polluters to reduce their releases so they don't have to do extensive paper work.

Mr. MARCUS PEACOCK (Environmental Protection Agency): This TRI rule encourages businesses to both reduce chemical emissions and increase recycling and treatment. Today's rule makes a good program better.

SHOGREN: Environmentalists, public health advocates and many Democrats in Congress disagree. Tom Natan has been studying the issue for the National Environmental Trust.

Mr. TOM NATAN: What it really means is that about 3,600 industrial facilities aren't going to report any data at all on releases to the environment, to EPA. And that means that people in surrounding communities won't learn anything about those facilities.

SHOGREN: For instance, Ashland has a chemical distributing facility in Mobile, Alabama. The company now reports how much of several toxic chemicals it releases into the air. If local residents wanted to find out about the plant's emissions, they could go to EPA's Toxic Release Inventory. Natan says under EPA's new rule that would change.

Mr. NATAN: Their releases fall below this threshold that EPA had set. And so if you were to look up this company, you would find the name of the chemicals but no information on how much they released to the environment.

SHOGREN: Natan says it's wrong to keep this information from the public.

Mr. NATAN: You know, we learn more and more every year that smaller and smaller amounts of exposure to chemicals can cause harm, particularly women who are exposed during pregnancy. You know. You don't want to have to be able to guess whether you're going to be okay. You'd rather know.

SHOGREN: But the EPA and companies say as long as the releases are under the EPA's threshold, they don't pose risk to the public. Ken Gordon from Ashland.

Mr. GORDON: The change here is still protective of public health, but also helps to reduce a bit of the burden on industry.

SHOGREN: EPA officials estimate that the change will save all companies $6 million a year. Gordon says his company still will do all it can to reduce toxic emissions.

Mr. GORDON: To be a good environmental steward in the industry also enhances your bottom line.

SHOGREN: But Democrats in the House and Senate say the EPA needs to keep closer track of how much companies are polluting. And they say they'll try to undo the EPA's new rule when they take over the majority in Congress next year.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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