News & Politics

Breathing Acid? That’s So 2003!


One couldn’t actually see or smell the trimethylbenzene and zinc compounds up in the Bronx, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, those chemicals were there in 2003, just like Brooklyn had its share of ammonia and toluene, Manhattan enjoyed a little sulfuric acid, Queens Country got some hydrochloric treatment, and Staten Island welcomed a touch of methyl tertiary-butyl ether (which promptly registered Republican).

While the amounts weren’t always significant and their public health impact would be subject to debate, these were among the dozens of chemicals tracked in the TRI database by every American zip code, county and state, for every year going back to 1988. It’s not necessarily reassuring to learn there’s benzene out your window, but—thanks to the federal Emergency Planning & Community Right to Know Act of 1986—at least we can learn it.

Now, the EPA, as part of an effort at “burden reduction” for facilities that handle toxins, is considering loosening the TRI reporting requirements for firms. This would include scrapping annual reporting and replacing it with reports every two years, increasing by a factor of 10 the amount of certain types of pollution requiring reporting, and allowing a third of the affected companies to submit truncated information.

Of the last proposal, EPA says, “Facilities that report low amounts of chemicals to TRI will benefit from this rule by being allowed to use the shorter Form A, thus reducing their reporting burden. The Form A is easier to complete than the longer Form R because there are fewer information fields to complete and fewer mathematical calculations to perform.” And by reporting every two years instead of annually, the EPA says it’ll save resources that can be used to improve the database.

But OMB Watch says the changes “will leave thousands of communities at greater risk from toxic chemicals.” In a December 8 e-mail, OMB Watch’s Gary Bass argues, “Environmental groups, first responders, workers, and public officials are now calling on EPA to abandon the plan. We estimate that almost half of facilities that report toxic pollution under TRI will be able to hide the details on some portion of their chemical releases due to these changes.”

The comment period on some of the proposed rule changes runs until January 13.

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