Might not want to drink the water

White House to cut down on paperwork by having companies turn in Toxic Release Inventory reports every two years

By: Eric Niiler and Kai Ryssdal National Public Radio's Marketplace November 4, 2005

KAI RYSSDAL, anchor: There is good bureaucracy and there is not-so-good bureaucracy. Of course, what someone thinks about a given rule or regulation kind of depends. Take a government report called the Toxic Release Inventory, or TRI. American companies have had to file TRIs for almost 20 years. They list the kinds of chemicals those companies use to make whatever they make. The forms give neighbors a clue as to what goes on inside a given plant or factory and community groups have used the information to pressure companies to cut pollution. Now, though, the White House wants to cut down on the paperwork. Eric Niiler has more.

ERIC NIILER reporting: Down here along the Ohio River, just west of Cincinnati, barges pull up to the Lanxess factory and unload chemical raw materials. Inside a maze of pipes and boilers, these compounds are broken down under heat and pressure to make new ones. Plant manager Sandy Marshall says the plastic resins made here go into products that you probably never thought much about.

Mr. SANDY MARSHALL (Plant Manager, Lanxess): The material we make here goes on to refrigerators, appliances, boat hulls, RVs.

NIILER: During manufacturing, some chemicals are released to the surrounding air or water and each year, Marshall and his team must tell the Environmental Protection Agency how much and what kind in something called the Toxic Release Inventory forms. Marshall says it's time-consuming to figure out these numbers but there are some benefits.

Mr. MARSHALL: TRI is a significant amount of work for us. However, the data is important because it does allow us to show to the community what we're doing and allows us to enter into a dialogue with the community.

NIILER: The TRI reports and local activists have convinced managers like Marshall to reduce chemical releases by fixing leaky pipes and installing scrubbers to destroy toxic chemicals. Cutting pollution can save money says Marshall.

Mr. MARSHALL: We also use the data as a way of assessing how we are doing in our plant. NIILER: After 19 years, most industries are used to filing these reports, kind of like taxes. But Washington wants to change that. EPA assistant administrator Kimberly Nelson says the TRI reports have become too much paperwork. She says the big pollution cuts were accomplished years ago. Now she wants to allow plants to file their reports every two years.

Ms. KIMBERLY NELSON (EPA Assistant Administrator): We're not seeing the changes from year to year that we saw in the early years. So as we look for better ways to use taxpayer dollars, this is an option we're putting out for discussion purposes.

NIILER: Another change would raise the threshold for filing reports by tenfold. This change would save the EPA $2 million a year, Nelson says, while saving smaller business owners time and money as well. Ms. NELSON: Since I've been here, I certainly have heard from the small business community that some of the reporting obligations tend to be burdensome.

Ms. RUTH BREECH (Ohio Citizen Action): Who's it a burden on? To me, that's a burden on the community.

NIILER: Ruth Breech is coordinator of Ohio Citizens Action. She says business is doing just fine. She says the public will pay a price if the rules are relaxed. Using TRI reports and some homemade air pollution monitors, Breech and some local volunteers discovered that the Lanxess plastics factory had been emitting toxic chemicals into the nearby town of Addyston, Ohio.

Ms. BREECH: We smell the kind of almost like a sweet smell. Come to find out that's acrylonitrile; kind of a pungent smell that burns your nose, we found out that was Butadiene. So we were able to make all these connections to the odors.

NIILER: Breech has become somewhat of an expert in using the data to find out what's in the air, but she says that if the EPA changes go through, local groups won't be able to get up-to-date information.

Ms. BREECH: You go to the companies, say, `Hey, we looked at your toxic release inventory and you've got some problems.' And they're saying, `Oh, that's two years old. We've already updated.'

NIILER: What's unusual about this dispute is that major industry groups in Washington haven't been fighting for these changes; that's according to several environmental lobbyists. Richard Wiles is senior vice president at the Environmental Working Group.

Mr. RICHARD WILES (Senior Vice President, Environmental Working Group): We were not aware of any push on the part of industry to roll back TRI reporting requirements. This appears to be a gift from the Bush administration to industry.

NIILER: The EPA's Nelson says she decided to make the changes on her own. EPA officials say they will hear public comments before making a final decision sometime next year. In Addyston, Ohio, I'm Eric Niiler for MARKETPLACE.