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Published: Friday, 12/15/2006

Bush move to reduce toxic data faces battle

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A public right-to-know law that Americans have used since 1984 to track neighborhood pollutants has overwhelming support from the public at large, yet the Bush Administration wants to weaken it, a national watchdog group said yesterday.

OMB Watch of Washington urged people yesterday to act on the final version of changes that the Bush-led U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ultimately issues for the agency's Toxic Release Inventory, or TRI. They are to be released by Dec. 31.

The TRI is a database of industry's self-reported pollutant releases. Though not audited, it is largely seen as the public's best tool for gauging releases of various chemicals by individual companies, as well as cumulative releases of chemicals on the federal, state, and county levels.

The Bush Administration has backed off its original plan of letting companies report only once every two years, as opposed to the annual reporting that has been done the last 22 years.

But it is expected to soften requirements in such a way that companies releasing fewer than 5,000 pounds of chemicals in a given year could report less information. The current reporting threshold is 500 pounds.

The administration's original rationale was that industry could save money and be more productive if it got a break from the reporting burden.

U.S. EPA deputy press secretary Jessica Emond said in a statement yesterday that the federal agency's "proposed changes to TRI would create incentives for businesses nationwide to improve environmental performance and reduce the most toxic chemicals at their facilities.

"The proposed changes in TRI reporting would in no way affect the amount of chemicals facilities are allowed to release under federal, state, and local regulations," the statement said.

But Sean Moulton, OMB Watch's director of information policy, said he fears the upcoming Bush proposal "would damage public access and offer no significant burden release for companies.

"The agency needs to find a burden-reduction proposal that doesn't leave the public in the dark," he said.

Mr. Moulton was joined on a conference call with reporters by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D., N.J.), who said he believes the new Democratic-controlled Congress wants to keep the status quo.

"I really don't understand where this is coming from," Mr. Pallone said. "What we're talking about here is the right to know."

OMB Watch said it analyzed all 122,420 comments about the program submitted to the U.S. EPA for its last proposal. It claimed 99.97 percent of them, or 122,386, were against proposed changes.

Joe Koncelik, Ohio EPA director, was quoted in the report as supporting the Bush administration's proposed threshold change for persistent bioaccumulative toxins, such as mercury, lead, and dioxin.

TRI figures show that between 1998 and 2003 Ohio released more chemicals into the air from industry smokestacks and similar devices than any other state.

There are 23,985 facilities nationwide required to disclose their chemical releases to the government. The U.S. EPA estimated they collectively spend $650 million a year to do so.



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