On December 3, 1984, 45 tons of methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. Four safety mechanisms failed to stop the escaping gas, due to inadequate maintenance. The accident killed 3,000 and at least 40,000 were seriously injured (Robins 1990:106; Shrivastava 1996:121, 125).
The tragedy at Bhopal made citizens and NGOs acutely aware of their ignorance about what local industries were producing. In the United States, workers and communities had called for the right to know about chemicals in their workplaces and neighborhoods since the 1970s. Political momentum peaked in 1986, when the U.S. Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. The legislation required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish a publicly accessible electronic database that would allow users to track the quantities of pollutants released by major businesses to air, land, and water. The database also tracked pollutants and wastes that companies transferred for various “off-site” waste management treatments such as landfill disposal, incineration, chemical treatment, or recycling.
This Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) is specifically intended to make it easy for anyone – journalist, policy-maker, investor, parent – to learn exactly what and how much companies are releasing from their smokestacks and discharge pipes. The data from each facility are reported in a standard format, with standardized names for each chemical listed. Thus, they can be compared over time to determine emission patterns and to rank facilities on their emission records.
The database has proven both popular and useful. A government website offers simple instructions for searching the database, making it easy to check the record of industrial facilities (see http://www.epa.gov/tri/). Other environmental groups also offer convenient access to the data as well as explanations of pollution regulations and human health risks to help interpret the information (see http://www.scorecard.org/).
The TRI has inspired notable reductions in emissions from industrial facilities. Working in conjunction with other laws and regulations, the TRI has helped reduce total pollutant releases by 1.5 billion pounds (680 million kg) or 48 percent between 1988 and 2000 (USEPA 2002a:12). This comes despite the fact that the data were never intended to be used by government agents to check for regulatory compliance. Their purpose was simply to inform the public.
The power of public disclosure was clear from the start. When the first TRI data were reported, many firms showing large pollutant releases – making them polluters in the public mind – suffered declines in their stock prices (Hamilton 1995:109). The link between TRI data and public perception proved a powerful stimulus for some companies. In fact, those firms experiencing the largest stock price declines on the day that their TRI emissions were disclosed subsequently reduced their emissions more than their industry peers. Companies with the most significant drop in their stock price reduced 1.84 pounds of pollutants per thousand dollars revenue, compared to about 0.17 pounds by others in the industry (Konar and Cohen 1997:120).
Many companies found that in the long run, the TRI actually helped them. For example, TRI reporting requirements spurred the Haartz Corporation, a U.S. manufacturer of coated fabrics, to install a chemical recycling system to cut its releases of the toxic solvent MEK, saving $200,000 annually (Doa 2003:104). Other companies made reductions that saved them money in fines, and as they paid more attention to each step of the manufacturing process, the quality of their products often improved.
Of course, the TRI is not without flaws. One notable failure is that it does not require small businesses to report their emissions and wastes. Only facilities that manufacture or process over 25,000 pounds of at least one listed TRI chemical, or use more than 10,000 pounds of at least one TRI chemical need to file a report. That leaves many businesses like dry cleaners, gasoline service stations, and a variety of small manufacturers and service providers out of the public eye (Scorecard 2003). In addition, the lag time for making new emissions data available to the public averages 18 months – making it difficult for the public to track a company