Wednesday, February 14, 2007

So What’s in Your Hometown: The Toxic Release Inventory and Citizen’s Right-to-know

A news article published today in Environmental Science and Technology reports on the recent changes to EPA's Toxic Release Inventory. Below is an article I wrote a while back (and just updated), when the EPA was considering changes to the TRI.

What's In Your Hometown?

“So why doesn’t everybody know about these web sites?” demanded Belle, my student. She had just completed the “hometown” assignment for class. The assignment required that they use several websites including the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory and Envirofacts websites and the Environmental Defense Fund’s Scorecard website to research their home town. The results, as always are eye-opening, and sometimes distressing.

Together, the three sites listed above, provide location specific information on toxic waste releasers and handlers, Superfund sites, currently operating landfills, the potential health impacts of chemicals in one’s neighborhood. Best of all, their primary purpose is to serve the public, so they are fairly user friendly. In fact, the Toxics Release Inventory is an outcome of the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, passed in 1986 after the Bhopal, India catastrophe. The Right to Know act requires that the EPA collect information on the handling and release of toxic chemicals from companies around the country, and that they make it open and accessible to all.

While the site is informative, it can be difficult at times to make sense of some of the chemical release information. Fortunately the Environmental Defense Fund’s Scorecard does this for us. Scorecard draws from over 400 databases including the Toxic Release Inventory, and combines these data with other useful information such as health effects data for individual chemicals, and geography, presenting a huge amount of information into “what this means for you.”

And finally, the EPA’s Envirofacts website provides a wealth of information on chemical releases to air, water, and land, and will overlay these data on a map of your town (the other sites map facilities also, but this site includes other information like the location of schools, roads and rivers.)

Using these sites, Belle, who grew up in suburban Pennsylvania, found that in 2002 the SPS Corporation, a supplier of fasteners and metal products to the aerospace and automotive industries, released 1,400 pounds of trichloroethylene into the air, along with smaller amounts of various other pollutants. The plant is just down the street from her home.

Belle also found that her county, Montgomery, PA, ranked number one in the state for superfund sites (there were 16). Fortunately, she also discovered that over the past decade, SPS has reduced their toxic releases by approximately 98%.

But Belle’s revelation paled in comparison to Jaime’s, who reported who reported on the 50 million pounds of toxic chemicals released into the air and waters of her home community of Harris County, TX, which is home to 22 superfund sites. Granted it’s not a fair comparison, one large industrial area verses suburban, PA, but when it’s your own hometown you might want to know about that nearby factory or superfund site, or that well groomed industrial campus down the block. As my students have found, these sites provide a powerful tool for investigating chemical releases in your own community, or in a community you might be considering relocating to.

So why doesn’t the public know about them, my students wanted know. Someone should write about this,” they said. Hmmmm, had I only been quick enough to turn around and give them an impromptu writing assignment. The next day as I skimmed through New York Time headlines online, an article in the business section caught my eye, “Location, Location, Location, Research, Research, Research,” aha, I thought, here it is, now I won’t have to write about it.

Wishful thinking, though the article listed several sites that might help a future property owner research their location, none of the sites discussed above were included in their list. After some more searching, I managed to find one article on Scorecard, but that was in Realtor Magazine Online, not one that’d I would have just found skimming through the news, and I’m not sure many others would either.

So, I decided, I should write about them. But before I could, I had to fully explore the sites myself (yes, yes, I admit it, after giving this “Hometown” assignment to students for the past five years, I had yet to investigate my own hometown.) Although I didn’t expect our community to turn out anything like Belle’s or Jaime’s, you never know.

Researching my own hometown and surrounding towns, I found dramatic reductions in chemical wastes released, which they attributed to either changing processes or through increased recycling. These reductions or changes in chemical processes are reflected graphically using the “Release Trends Graphs,” a useful feature of the Toxics Release Inventory, and are in part the result of Massachusetts’ Toxic Use Reduction Act, which encouraged facilities to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals they use by increasing efficiency and/or using less toxic alternatives.

There is one small limitation of the Release Inventory that I need to mention. Reporting limits. A facility must report only those chemicals that require reporting (currently EPA a total of 666 chemical and chemical categories) and must only report quantities of those chemicals that are treated, recycled or released, which up ‘til now, were quantities in excess of 500 pounds, or the “annual reportable amount.” So if a facility releaseed 500 pounds or less of a particular chemical release inventory chemical they are not required to report specific amounts. (Although chemicals categorized as “persistent and/or bioaccumulative” have lower reportable amounts.)

Depending on the chemical, 500 pounds may not be much if we’re talking just one or two industries in a community, but here’s the problem, recently, the EPA increased the “annual reportable amounts,” from 500 pounds to over 2,000 pounds. Effectively reducing what we have a right to know about. While a 4-fold change in the amount of chemical reported might not make a huge difference in Jaime's hometown, it would in ours or other small communities who depend upon the Release Inventory to keep tabs on local businesses, or in those communities which may have several smaller releasers.

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