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EPA Toxics Release Inventory and the “Right to Know”

A vision for corporate disclosure and community engagement.

Each year, the Environmental Protection Agency requires certain industries to publicly report toxic chemical and waste releases. Known as the “Toxics Release Inventory Program,” this information aims to provide communities and others with facts about environmental conditions in their areas.

The National Training Conference on the Toxics Release Inventory (November 1-4, 2010) has traditionally focused on interpreting these results. This year, the conference expanded to include more discussions of environmental decision-making in communities and people’s “right to know.”

Janet Ranganathan gave an opening plenary address at the 2010 National Training Conference on the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) and Environmental Conditions Communities, held this week in Washington D.C. In the speech, she outlined her vision to reinvigorate this great flagship “right to know” program. Below are her remarks:

Opening plenary, 2010 National Training Conference on the Toxics Release Inventory and Environmental Conditions in Communities

Nov 2, Washington D.C.

Issues like environmental justice and community right-to-know stand at the heart of WRI's governance work, and the work of The Access Initiative. That's why I am here today. But there is another personal reason why I was eager to accept this speaking invitation. The power of publicly available corporate performance information in a standardized accessible format, as exemplified by TRI, made a huge impression on my early days at WRI. It inspired my work on corporate environmental performance reporting which later evolved into sustainability reporting and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). It was the inspiration behind my efforts to create a standardized approach for measuring and reporting corporate greenhouse gas emissions and the launching of the GHG Protocol.

A Powerful Source of Information

What is it about TRI that makes it so powerful? Let me highlight four features.

  1. The data is public and actively disseminated;

  2. The data is standardized; they can be used to present a coherent picture of trends over time and across geographical areas of emissions by substance at individual facilitues, and also aggregated by company, industry state, and type of substance;

  3. The data can be used by communities and others to track and compare the performance of facilities and companies and improvements in performance by lauding leaders and shaming laggards; and

  4. TRI data track releases of specific materials to air and water as well as transfers in waste, helping companies identify opportunities to prevent pollution by changing technology and practices, thus moving away from cleaning up wastes at the end-of the pipe.

Early experience from TRI showed that data increases the likelihood of negotiations between communities and companies/facilities. Information enables participation. A chemical industry participant in a 1991 conference said1:

Plant and environmental managers, even operators and plant engineers, now spend more time communicating with the public about emissions and operations, a change from past years when the plant or the technical community was the foremost focus. By hearing about citizens’ concerns firsthand, manufacturers have realized that just making a good product is not enough. Being responsive to citizen concerns and communicating to make the public feel comfortable has changed the way manufacturers do business.

Strengthening the Toxics Release Inventory

Given that TRI is one of the jewels in the EPA's crown of regulatory tools, it is unfortunate that the last decade has been less ambitious than its first. The time has come to reinvigorate this great flagship "right to know" program. Let me offer three ways to strengthen TRI:

  • Expand the scope of reporting;
  • Strengthen data, analysis, synthesis and coordination; and
  • Deepen the meaning of community right to know.

Expand the scope of reporting

The good thing about TRI is that it shines a lamp on problems - but the downside is that users only focus under the lamps that are lit. There is an urgent need to turn new lamps on. Rather than do this in a piecemeal fashion, EPA should instigate a regular, public systematic review of major polluting industries and new threats. This should be conducted in a transparent manner and be participatory in nature. Let me signal out one candidate for inclusion - fluids used for hydraulic fracturing in shale gas (shale gas reserves in the U.S. are huge and this source of energy could transform the energy landscape in years to come).

Strengthen data quality, analysis, synthesis and coordination

Much can be done here without additional action by Congress. Opportunities for strengthening include revisiting formulas to make sure they reflect actual releases, eliminating paper submissions, and speeding up data release through actions such as the early data release system. The ability to group data at the corporate level (as with the new GHG reporting program), should be made easier to facilitate use by groups like Calvert, who routinely use environmental performance information to assess corporate environmental performance. TRI data should also be combined with other environmental information to provide communities with a more complete picture of their environmental conditions. To this end, the office of information can play an invaluable role helping users to combine data from different sources within EPA and across other agencies e.g., CDC, OSHA, NOAA.

Deepen the meaning of community right to know

This is about increasing the usability of information and the “community's ability to act". In Indonesia for example, the Program for Pollution Control, Evaluation, and Rating makes available color-coded ratings on the relative risk each facility poses. In this way, even the rural poor can understand the dangers posed to them by a site.

It is also about proactively identifying high risk communities through an open and collaborative process and then working with them, alongside other relevant agencies, to define specific reduction goals and track progress over time.

And finally, “right to know” has a flip side. There should also be a "duty to inform". Manufacturers are best placed to identify, assess and publicly report on the risks associated with their products.

A Vision for the Future

Let me share with you a glimpse of what the future might look like if we are successful in driving these changes. Within the next 5-10 years:

  • Company reports and government data will show that the most toxic substances have been eliminated from the waste stream by developing cost-effective, equally productive, and less toxic alternatives.

  • EPA offices will be routinely identifying and working with high-risk communities across the country to map and integrate all kinds of data (census, drinking water, air, for example) and using it to improve permitting processes, enforce current laws, and develop and track indicators. The recently developed Environmental Justice Strategic Enforcement Assessment Tool (SEAT) is one important step in this direction, but it needs more resources and a clear link to a decision-making process.

  • In the absence of regulatory authority, EPA is working with companies to negotiate voluntary public reduction targets to reduce exposure in vulnerable communities. The communities receive regular customized report cards from EPA, allowing them to compare and benchmark the performance of local facilities, products, and workplaces with those in other locations.

  • EPA is seen as a global leader on right to know and a key innovator in transparency, participation, and accountability.

Impact Across the Globe

Finally, let me mention that the number of TRI-type programs in the world is expected to double in the next decade. Everything that we do in this country to improve information, participation, and justice will be watched around the globe. And that’s why the theme of this conference, "Connecting Communities and Decision Makers with Environmental Information", is so important.

As the rest of the world seeks to develop sustainably while reducing poverty, how the U.S. includes its marginal, vulnerable communities in decisions about development and environment will have a ripple effect many times over. As you enjoy the exciting speakers at this year’s conference, I hope that you will take the time to reflect and think creatively in the real spirit of community right-to-know. We have come a long way, but there is still much to be done.

  1. Elizabeth A. Fisher, Rohm and Haas Company, "An Industry Perspective on Reporting Releases of Toxic Chemicals”, in Proceedings of International Conference on Reporting Releases of Toxic Chemcals, Nov 13-15, 1991, Vienna, Austria, sponsored by U.S. EPA with OECD, p. 34. ↩︎

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