THE CHARLESTON GAZETTE/TRIBUNE BUSINESS NEWS
Every year, chemical companies, steel mills and various manufacturers are required to tell the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which pollutants they emit and how much. Public health officials and other researchers use the data, which also is available online at www.epa.gov/tri.
But now, the Bush administration wants to weaken the report requirement and make it biennial.
EPA officials acknowledge that there is concern about losing data if polluters are required to share information only half as often. Under the proposal, they would also be required to complete shorter forms. The changes would save about $2 million a year, and make corporate recordkeeping easier.
We are glad the EPA recognizes the need to balance the value of information with the hassle and expense of generating it. However, we are uneasy about the judgment of this administration and its allies in Congress. So far, the White House has favored benefits for companies over the public good, whether the subject has been energy policy, prescription drug benefits or mountaintop removal mining.
Creation of the Toxic Release Inventory was prompted in part by Union Carbide’s disastrous 1984 chemical leak in Bhopal, India, where thousands died. Since then, contaminants have entered groundwater in the Bhopal area, affecting another generation of residents. A 1985 leak at Carbide’s Institute plant injured more than 100 people and convinced people that a deadly leak could happen here, too. In 1986, Congress passed the Emergency Protection and Community Right-to-Know Act, giving the country consistent and reliable information on all kinds of pollutants.
Knowledge is a powerful thing. When people knew what local industries were spewing into the air, ground or water, they pressured firms to clean up. West Virginia manufacturers invested millions, and cut emissions 75 percent between 1987 and 1999. The Toxic Release Inventory is a government program that serves the public well.
The EPA is required to notify Congress before making such a change, which it has done. It is also collecting public opinion on the proposal. We hope citizens raise serious questions about the weakening of vigilance.
We cannot see how generating data less often — working with information that is two years out of date — will help companies or their neighbors stay abreast of pollution. Indeed, it could help companies hide one-time increases by scheduling maintenance or cleaning during an off year.
The Bush administration already expects Americans to live with more pollution. It seems the administration doesn’t want the public to know as much about it either.