ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
Coming up on the show, the next time you're in a Texas Roadhouse - sawdust on the floor, Willie Nelson on the jukebox - you can skip the mug of Lone Star and sip a glass of local wine.
First, to stuff that can be a lot more harmful to us. Congressional Democrats are going after the Bush administration over a change in how the Environmental Protection Agency regulates toxic chemicals. And California legislators want to get into this fight too.
From San Francisco, David Gorn reports.
DAVID GORN: Tucked under the shadow of the I-80 freeway in West Berkeley is the Pacific Steel Foundry. It's been operating since 1934. It's a complex of three warehouses jammed full with workers and noise and tons of metal. In one corner, grinders are throwing off sparks for five feet in all directions.
(Soundbite of foundry)
DAVID GORN: One worker mans a crucible that pours the 3,000-degree molten steel into a mold to make an engine fitting for a school bus. One of the byproducts of Pacific Steel's work is toxic chemicals. Chromium, manganese, naphthalene and phenol all rise into the air here, thousands of pounds of it every year.
For years, neighbors have been upset at the bad smells and potential health hazard, so with the help of some environmental lawyers, they looked up a government index called the TRI, or Toxics Resource Inventory. There they found hard data about what was being released by the factory. They sued and recently reached an historic settlement with Pacific Steel, complete with a high-tech carbon-air filter and pledges to continue meetings between the company and neighbors.
That kind of success story, though, started with information, which, says Bill Walker of the Environmental Working Group, might not be so forthcoming now.
Mr. BILL WALKER (California Director, Environmental Working Group): Under this new law, at least some of the releases that Pacific Steel has been putting out to the community, they wouldn't have had to tell the community about.
GORN: The new law is a recent rule change by the EPA which sets a lower reporting standard for toxic chemical releases. Before this year, companies releasing 500 pounds or more of any toxic chemical had to fill out a detailed report about the size and type of toxic release.
Now companies don't need to fill out a longer form unless their toxic chemical release tops 2,000 pounds a year. According to EPA spokeswoman Molly O'Neill, a benefit of the streamlined reporting standards could be that larger polluters might be enticed to keep their releases below 2,000 pounds a year so they don't have to fill out the longer form.
Ms. MOLLY O'NEILL (Spokeswoman, EPA): On the plus side, for these companies that have a lot of reporting to do, the incentive is to get down below that threshold.
GORN: But that doesn't wash with U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works.
Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): They've weakened the law dramatically. They've said that if you're below 2,000 pounds, you really don't have to explain anything to the community. Oh, they can twist it any way they want, but the fact is it's way more dangerous.
GORN: Senator Boxer recently introduced a bill to reverse what the EPA did. And a similar bill is now making its way through the House. The EPA action has stirred up local opposition as well. In California, an assembly bill would set the state's level of toxic chemical reporting at the original threshold.
(Soundbite of foundry)
GORN: Back in West Berkeley, the neighbors say the detail about the chemicals is what matters. For instance, a few years back neighbors knew something had changed at the foundry because the smell got so bad. But, says Philip Wang, an environmental lawyer who helped with the neighbors' settlement, you don't get very far complaining about bad smells. The facts were what turned the tide, he said. And he adds one scenario, since many chemicals don't even have an odor.
Mr. PHILIP WANG (Environmental Lawyer): What if the residents of West Berkeley couldn't smell what was coming out of Pacific Steel and yet it was having the same impacts on their health, on their lungs, and on their children? That's what would happen if the toxics release inventory wasn't around. The people wouldn't know.
GORN: Environmentalists, the EPA and businesses can all agree on one thing. The toxics release inventory has worked. The amount of toxic chemicals being released in the U.S. has steadily declined over the past few decades. The question is whether the EPA is crippling that law or just making a good law better. That will be debated when the House and Senate bills come out of committee. The California legislation could land on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk by the end of summer.
For NPR News, I'm David Gorn in San Francisco.