KEN LEISER, ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH, MAY 13, 2006
During the last decade, environmental health advocate Kathy Andria has taken university students, health officials and community groups on tours through St. Clair and Madison counties to see companies that handle and release toxic chemicals.
The tour is built largely around information Andria mines from the Toxics Release Inventory, a federal collection of annual reports detailing the legal release of toxic chemicals into the environment – ranging from smokestack emissions to water discharges to landfill disposal.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed changes that would weaken the reporting tool that has been credited with significantly reducing toxic emissions, according to opponents that include the U.S. Conference of Mayors, air pollution control officials and environmental groups.
“It would allow companies to operate under the radar screen and it is depriving communities of their right to know” what’s being released into the environment, said Andria, president of American Bottom Conservancy environmental group.
The EPA proposed new rules in October that would allow more regulated companies to use a sort of “short form” based on their chemical use in a given year. The threshold for the more detailed report would be 5,000 pounds for each chemical handled. The current cutoff is 500 pounds.
Critics say the shorter form provides far less detail about the type and quantity of waste a company generates.
An analysis by the National Environmental Trust found that the more detailed level of reporting would no longer be required for 207 companies in Illinois and 88 in Missouri.
The public comment period has closed and the EPA is reviewing the responses.
The U.S. EPA also told Congress it may propose another rule change later this year that would allow companies to report every other year instead of annually. The biennial reporting is supported by the petroleum industry and others who say it will reduce their paperwork burden.
But environmental groups are worried that the public would be deprived of a significant amount of timely information if reporting goes to every other year.
“That is one of the issues we are most concerned about,” said Kristan Markey, a research analyst at the Environmental Working Group.
The law establishing the Toxics Release Inventory was passed in 1986 following the deadly release of methyl isocyanate gas in Bhopal, India, and a spate of domestic chemical accidents.
During 2004, the most recent reporting period, more than 23,600 facilities across the country reported releasing or disposing of 4.24 billion pounds of toxic chemicals. In releasing the data, the EPA pointed out that pollution levels are dropping across the country.
Supporters of the status quo say it already takes a long time for the information to reach the public. The 2004 data, for instance, was released just last month.
Locally, the largest waste producer in overall weight for that year was the Doe Run Company’s Herculaneum lead smelter, followed by U.S. Steel Corp.’s plant in Granite City and AmerenUE’s coal-fired power plants.
The Doe Run facility generated more than 10 million pounds combined of zinc compounds, aluminum dust, lead and other metals that are disposed of on site.
Doe Run spokeswoman Barb Shepard said the slag, a byproduct of metals smelting, doesn’t pose a threat to the public because it is placed in an engineered storage area on private property. The groundwater is monitored as well, she said.
Even if federal reporting requirements are shifted to alternate years, Shepard said, the company will continue to report to communities on an annual basis.
Ameren’s coal-fired power plants in Labadie, West Alton, south St. Louis County and Festus also were among the top 10 waste generators.
Paul Pike, a strategic analyst at Ameren who has worked on TRI reporting, said the public is actually exposed to minute quantities of the waste generated at the plants because of emissions controls.
“It is not that it is raining down toxins on people,” he said. “It is being collected in the ash.”
In Granite City, most of the nearly 7 million pounds of zinc, manganese and lead compounds generated there is slag from the steelmaking process at the U.S. Steel plant, said company spokesman John Armstrong. The bulk goes to a permitted landfill, he said.
“The quality of the reporting depends on the company that is doing it,” Armstrong said. “We are very scrupulous in our reporting … very careful to report everything we are required to report.”
EPA officials warn that the inventory catalogues amounts of chemicals released or disposed of – not the degree of public exposure. Toxicity of the chemicals included in the inventory also vary greatly.
First responders also question any move to water down reporting of toxics. After Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans last fall, emergency crews tapped the Toxics Release Inventory to find out what kind of industrial chemicals were stored by flooded companies.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors also is concerned that allowing so many smaller companies to dodge detailed reporting requirements will “undermine” local pollution-prevention and emergency response programs.
Executive Director Tom Cochran warned that if the reporting threshold were increased to 5,000 pounds, cities “would lose information from facilities that might have small but more toxic releases.”
EPA spokeswoman Suzanne Ackerman said the proposal to ease the reporting thresholds is part of a larger streamlining effort. She acknowledges some details will be lost with more companies qualifying for the shorter form.
“This didn’t come out of the blue,” Ackerman said. “For years, we have been trying to make reporting as simple and easy as possible so that people will do it and do it correctly.”
Critics point to the program’s success in helping reduce toxics emissions since its inception and questioned the proposed rule changes.
“It is a successful program and we do hear that it takes too much time to file, primarily from smaller businesses that don’t have a 100-person accounting department to do the paperwork,” Ackerman said.