Monday, September 26, 2005

Industrial pollution may get paper break

From SF Gate:

After Hurricane Katrina turned New Orleans into a big bowl of toxic soup, many people became aware for the first time of the danger of having millions of gallons of industrial pollutants in their vicinity.

So how did the Bush administration react? It proposed last week easing requirements for companies to report toxic materials released in surrounding neighborhoods.

It also proposed requiring companies to file inventories of potentially hazardous chemicals stored on-site every other year, instead of the current annual reporting rule.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the proposed changes would save businesses 165,000 hours of paperwork every year.

"One hundred percent will still be reported under the change," said Kimberly Nelson, the EPA's assistant administrator for environmental information. "All we lose is some of the details."

Glenn Kaplan, for one, can appreciate that. As director of business development for TeleChem International, a Sunnyvale distributor of industrial chemicals, he said he spends plenty of time filling out EPA forms.

"We follow all the EPA regulations, and spend a lot of time and money doing that," Kaplan told me. "If we could cut the amount of paperwork we do and stay within the rules, that's good for us."

At the same time, he acknowledged that New Orleans provided a stark reminder of the value of knowing precisely what sorts of chemicals are stored in various locations.

"The current rules are there for good reason," Kaplan said. "You need to know what's where."

That's the problem with the EPA's proposed rule changes, said Ed Hopkins, director of environmental quality for the Sierra Club.

"EPA is coming down on the side of less paperwork rather than public health," he said.

The proposed rule changes would significantly cut back the amount of reporting a company has to do for toxic materials either inadvertently spilled or deliberately released into the environment.

Current rules allow companies to file a so-called short form if they spill or release less than 500 pounds of a chemical each year. Under the proposed changes, that limit will increase to 5,000 pounds.

"You would still have to report," Hopkins observed, "but you wouldn't have to provide the details. You wouldn't have to say whether the chemicals were released into the air, the water or the soil."

(The EPA's Nelson confirmed that the short form indeed doesn't require such disclosure.)

Similarly, Hopkins said, allowing companies to report toxic inventories every other year instead of annually will keep many communities in the dark about the extent of poisonous materials in their back yards.

"Over the years, citizens have used this information to pressure companies to reduce toxic releases," Hopkins said. "This will take away an important tool that gives citizens the ability to protect themselves."

According to Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., more than 4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals are released into the nation's environment every year, including 72 million pounds of known carcinogens.

The EPA's proposals, he said in a statement, "would deny communities up-to-date information about local toxic releases, reduce incentives to minimize the generation of toxic waste, and undermine the ability of public health agencies and researchers to identify important trends."

The EPA's Nelson responded that there's relatively little potential danger to the public by requiring only limited details of any toxic release under 5,000 pounds, as opposed to the current 500-pound limit for short-form eligibility.
"In the whole scheme of things," she said, "these are very small releases, not very significant."

(The Sierra Club's Hopkins countered that knowing whether 4,999 pounds of poisonous materials had been released into the air, water or soil would be very significant to any family with kids who play outdoors.)

Nelson also said that scaling back toxic inventories from annual filings to every other year would give the EPA more opportunity to closely examine the information.

"This would allow us to improve our analysis," she said. "We can add more value to the data."

Mike Walls, managing director of the American Chemistry Council, an industry group, said EPA reporting rules cost businesses about $650 million a year.

"It's no mere paperwork requirement," he said. "There's a lot of effort that has to go into it. There's a large economic impact."

The proposed changes are thus "a good thing," Walls added.

Not so, replied Tom Natan, research director for the National Environmental Trust, an advocacy group. "They will deprive the public of a great deal of information," he said.

As an example, he pointed out that because of the EPA's current database, New Orleans residents know that more than 180 potentially dangerous chemicals are stored at more than 60 industrial facilities in the area.
"At least there's some information handy in case any of these facilities flood," Natan said. "If you're reporting (chemical inventories) every other year, that's much less information."

And that can make a disastrous situation even worse.

David Lazarus' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Send tips or feedback to dlazarus@sfchronicle.com.


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