A Victory for the Right-to-Know
June 6, 2006
Filed under Open Government
In the 17 years since the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) first went online, it has been widely regarded as a successful program. It has been a model of how transparency alone can bring about positive changes in regulatory policy. The model is simple: Companies that release a certain amount of toxins into the environment must report this information to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA makes this information public. Individuals can decide whether or not to live in an area based on the information. Communities can plan using the information and can pressure companies with particularly high levels, or that do not improve their releases, or that are not using new alternatives that are less harmful, etc. Companies produce less toxins because of the pressure that they feel from individuals and the community. TRI would be a successful program even if the information were only available in reading rooms, however, the Internet has made it so that really anyone can get direct access to this important data themselves, rather than through filters. (I'm giving a lot of credit to the Internet here, but there is always a face behind the technology. Without the hard work of OMB Watch to get this information online through its RTKnet; to pressure the EPA to make it broadly available on official sites; and to keep it there, this information would very likely not be available on the Internet at all). So, if it is such a success, why has the EPA been moving to weaken the reporting requirements by: 1. Switching from annual to biennial reporting, leaving a gap every other year during which companies could pollute as much as they want without reporting. 2. Allowing companies to release ten times the amount of toxics before detailed reporting would be required. 3. Creating a first-ever exemption on reporting the most dangerous class of chemicals-Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxins (PBTs), like lead and mercury? Good question... and one that 198 organizations led by OMB Watch (and including CDT) have been asking too! Fortunately, Congress seems to be united against these changes. In a little reported, but important, victory for maintaining TRI, an amendment to the Interior Appropriations Bill overwhelmingly passed the House just before the Memorial Day recess. This amendment was introduced by Reps. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Hilda Solis (D-CA) who deserve praise for their leadership in protecting our right-to-know.