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Will the Public Lose its Right to Know About Toxic Releases by Industry?

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Congress could face a vote as early as today on proposed changes by the Environmental Protection Agency that would essentially dismantle its Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) which tracks the amount of toxic chemicals manufacturing facilities release into the environment. [includes rush transcript]

Will the public lose its right to know about toxic releases by industry? Congress could face a vote on the issue as early as today. Proposed changes by the Environmental Protection Agency would essentially dismantle its Toxics Release Inventory–or TRI.

The TRI program tracks the amount of toxic chemicals manufacturing facilities release into the environment. Last September, the EPA announced plans to significantly roll back the program’s reporting requirements in order to reduce the paperwork burden on corporations.

The agency’s proposed changes include allowing companies to release ten times as much pollution before being required to report the details of how much was produced and where it went. The EPA has also proposed collecting TRI pollution reports every other year, instead of the currently-required annual submissions.

The reporting changes have met with opposition from community groups, public interest watchdogs and members of Congress. A vote is expected as early as today on an amendment to the House Interior Appropriations bill that would prevent the EPA from spending money on implementing the proposed changes.

  • Sean Moulton, director of Federal Information Policy at OMB Watch, a Washington-based watchdog group.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Sean Moulton. He’s Director of Federal Information Policy at OMB Watch, a Washington-based watchdog group. Welcome to Democracy Now!

SEAN MOULTON: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain exactly what this is about. Now, what does environmental pollution from industry have to do with national security?

SEAN MOULTON: Well, not that much. The pollution has been tracked now for about 18 years. The Toxic Release Inventory has been in place and successfully running for almost two decades. And it all happened in the aftermath of the Bhopal, India tragedy, where thousands were killed by a chemical accident, and Congress passed legislation that essentially established the public’s right to know about hazardous and toxic chemicals that are in their community. And now, EPA is proposing to roll it back, not because of any kind of national security, which is an ongoing debate about chemical departments, but this time they’re saying it’s really about just reducing the burden on companies.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how important has this registry been to community organizations and to residents who live around major manufacturing facilities in the past?

SEAN MOULTON: It’s been one of the most vital tools, probably, for those communities that they’ve really ever gotten. The information it provides them is a real leveling tool. Prior to having this kind of a database, they could complain, but there was really no basis for them to argue or any demands that they could really issue, because they weren’t sure exactly what the companies were doing. This really lays it all out on the table and gives residents and community groups the ability to say, “Your toxic pollution is increasing every year, and we want it to stop.” And that, in itself, has been very successful, because we’ve seen huge reductions in the release and disposal of toxic chemicals over the years. In the last five years alone, the T.R.I. program has tracked a 2.8 billion-pound reduction in the annual generation of toxic pollution.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what is expected to happen as early as today, since these things get very arcane, amendments on, etc. What is the amendment that’s been proposed?

SEAN MOULTON: Well, Representatives Pallone from New Jersey and Solis from California are proposing an amendment that would essentially de-fund EPA’s process of making these changes. The Interior Appropriations Bill is the bill that basically funds the Department of Interior, Environmental Protection, Fish and Wildlife Service. And their amendment would basically say very simply, ”EPA can no longer spend money to make these changes.” And so, it would just stop them in their tracks.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what are the prospects right now, from your vantage point, in terms of how Congress will vote on this?

SEAN MOULTON: It’s always hard to say. It’s Congress, and politics get involved. But I would say our chances are good. These changes that EPA are proposing really affect every state, every community. It’s a nonpartisan issue, in that sense, that it will — I think it’s about a thousand communities around the country, with these changes, would lose all of their information. And so, there’s a real reason here to step in and basically say to EPA, “If you want to reduce burden, that’s fine. But we know you can do it better and without sacrificing the public’s right to know.”

AMY GOODMAN: Sean Moulton, we want to thank you very much for being with us, Director of Federal Information Policy at OMB Watch. And Juan, before we go to break, I wanted to ask you about the news we had out of New York of a former aide in the Giuliani administration actually talking about he, himself, getting sick as a result of working at ground zero. You wrote the book, Fallout, about this very issue.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, it was a fascinating story actually in the the New York Post, because Rudy Washington was the Deputy Mayor under Mayor Giuliani and was very much involved at ground zero in the days after 9/11. It turns out that he’s applied and been granted a workman’s compensation claim for illness, that he got sick. He claimed he got sick with a mysterious illness immediately after 9/11 and has been for the last several years under medication for asthma that he had never had before and other respiratory problems. And the surprising thing about this story is, one, that it’s never been reported that the Deputy Mayor got sick immediately after 9/11. The Bloomberg administration, the current mayor, is appealing the decision of the state’s workman’s compensation board. And it clearly is an implicit criticism of Mayor Giuliani, the former mayor, who actually scoffed at critics who were saying that there were problems, environmental and health problems, at 9/11, that now one of his own deputy mayors has come down sick as a result.

AMY GOODMAN: Also, this made me think of this, because we’re talking right now about the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency that Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey, headed and told people right afterwards it’s safe to go back to work.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, and I don’t think there’s any agency that has received more criticism now, even from official government sources and the courts, in terms of how it communicated to the public and downplayed the dangers. And, of course, more and more former workers on ground zero, as well as emergency responders, are now coming down either sick, or some have already started to die, as a result of their illnesses.

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