History of Ohio Citizen Action’s
right-to-know campaigns

Sandy Buchanan, Executive Director
Ohio Citizen Action

February, 1997
National Canvassers Conference, Hudson Bay Company
Paducah, Kentucky

In 1980, the Cincinnati Post ran a series of articles on Cincinnati as the cancer capital of the United States. It had the highest per capita cancer death rate in the country. Everyone, of course, wanted to know why, and city council member Tom Brush held a series of hearings to investigate.

At that time, Ronald Reagan was taking over the White House and getting rid of Carter appointees. Eula Bingham, who had headed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under Carter, returned to her native Cincinnati and came to Tom Brush’s public hearing. She explained how she had been preparing to issue federal toxic chemical right to know standards at OSHA, to give workers crucial information about toxic chemicals on the job.

It sounds elementary now — that people should be able to get access to information about exposure to chemicals they work with or breathe in every day, but it was not taken for granted in 1980. Bingham suggested that if the federal government wasn’t going to protect people, then the City of Cincinnati should pass its own right-to-know ordinance for workers and residents.

Citizen Action, working with allies in neighborhoods, firefighters, and labor unions, began a contentious two-year campaign to pass the Cincinnati right to know. I don’t know how many of you have been to Cincinnati and seen the twin towers of Procter & Gamble which rise over the city. A key fact of political life in Cincinnati is Procter & Gamble’s huge political influence. They, and the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, fiercely opposed the right to know law, and threatened council members with cutting off campaign funds if they supported it.

The canvass sprung into action at many times during the campaign, taking fliers door-to-door, generating calls to council, and helping to make the right to know a crucial issue in the city council elections. Tom Brush, the sponsor of the ordinance, made the right to know the only issue of his campaign, and was re-elected with a much higher vote margin than ever before.

Throughout the campaign, the opponents of the measure made a critical mistake. They never changed their position of flat-out opposition to the bill. When city council, after the election, decided they would pass some version of Brush’s ordinance, the opponents were not at the bargaining table — they were still outside trying to knock the doors down. The result was passage of a very strong ordinance in Cincinnati.

The Cincinnati ordinance became the model for laws we were then able to pass in Akron, Cleveland, Columbus, Kent, Lancaster, Norwood, Oregon, and Toledo.

Business opponents got a little smarter. They began to sit at the negotiating table in other cities. Since Cincinnati’s ordinance was so tough, we were able to use them as an example and win comparable laws in other places. In every case, the canvassers took the message door-to-door and generated turnout and pressure on the always-waffling members of city council.

In December 1984, a horrible disaster took place: an accident at Union Carbide’s pesticide manufacturing facility in Bhopal, India. Tens of thousands of people who lived in shantytowns surrounding the facility were killed, blinded or maimed for life by their exposure to the methyl isocyanate gas that poisoned the air around the plant.

People in the United States began asking lots of questions. Could this happen here? Do we have methyl isocyanate at plants in the United States? What about all the other chemical accidents that could take place? What could we do to prevent them?

Because the United States had no chemical right-to-know laws, many of these questions could not be answered. Members of Congress had heard about the right to know laws that had been passed in Ohio, Philadelphia, and New Jersey, and thought that those laws could be extended to the rest of the country.

The Congressional committee drafting the federal right-to-know proposal literally used Ohio’s local ordinances and experiences as a model to draft their proposal, including a requirement that local firefighters receive lists of the chemicals being stored at facilities in their communities. Luckily for us, the federal Superfund bill had to be reauthorized that year because the chemical tax that funds toxic waste dump cleanups was about to expire. The right-to-know proposal was hitched to the locomotive of Superfund, so it was sure to pass. In the meantime, we and citizens across the country were organizing in favor of the law. In the fall of 1985, we delivered more than one million signatures on petitions to Congress asking for a strong bill.

Even given the public outcry over Bhopal, and the tremendous public support for the right to know, the industry lobbyists never gave up. They had become more subtle. Instead of opposing the right to know outright, they used code words like "we need a reasonable, workable bill." An important new component of the federal bill was the requirement that industries report not only the chemicals being used and stored at their facilities, but their emissions into the air, land, and water. This became known as the 'Toxics Release Inventory'.

This is where the industry lobbying groups made a major attempt to gut the proposal. The proposal required reporting on two major categories of chemicals: (1) those that can cause acute, or immediate, harm, like the methyl isocyanate in Bhopal; and (2) those that can cause damage with chronic, or long-term, exposure — in other words, chemicals that cause cancer or reproductive hazards.

Congressman John Dingell of Michigan, who at that time chaired the key committee hearing the bill, was tight with the auto industry. The auto makers feared that if they had to report releases of cancer-causing chemicals they would fuel the fire for — horrors! — a strong new federal Clean Air Act. So Dingell supported an amendment to remove the chronic hazards from the reporting. Congressman Dingell had a great admirer, Representative Dennis Eckart of Ohio, with a district just east of Cleveland. Eckart had hitched his star to Dingell and would do anything Dingell wanted. He promised to lead the charge to take the cancer-causing chemicals out of the bill.

Naturally, this was very aggravating for us, to have a liberal Democratic congressman in our own back yard opposing a key element of the right to know. We canvassed his district and he, of course, was furious. We had an acrimonious meeting with him, and he refused to change his position. He even worked on gathering the votes of other Ohio Democrats, including one, Ed Feighan, whom we had supported. Feighan caved in. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Toledo, did not.

When the night of the floor vote on the critical amendment came, no one knew how it would turn out. Eckart was the floor manager for the bad guys, meaning he got to organize the debate on the floor. I watched on C-Span, with the little ticker that comes on the screen for 15 minutes, as first one side pulled ahead, then the other, until it looked like a tie. Then, at the last second, one vote switched in favor of the right to know, and we won. We later learned that Rep. Kiki DeLaGarza of Texas changed his vote to our side at the last minute.

That was the birth of the Toxics Release Inventory.

After the federal law passed, states had to pass their own enabling legislation. We were involved in this, of course, too, since one of our old nemeses, a Cleveland legislator, wrote his own version of the law, trying to weaken it at the state level. He did not succeed.

Even after the state bill passed, we had one major fight left to go. Believe it or not, every major business lobbying organization in Ohio opposed a provision of the state’s rules that required companies to give a map of the locations of their chemicals to the fire department. They claimed that a list, not a map, was required. They continued to claim this even after an explosion at a small chemical plant near Newark, Ohio, took the life of one worker. A surviving worker, as the plant was in flames, stood outside the building trying to sketch a map of the chemical locations for the fire department.

The Ohio Chamber of Commerce, Manufacturers Association, Petroleum Council and Chemical Council took their objections to giving maps to firefighters to every level of appeal, all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, where they lost.

Since the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) was established in the late 1980’s, the yearly reporting of toxic chemical pollution has become the most potent tool we have for getting companies to reduce their pollution. It’s what Ralph Nader calls the "shame factor" — BF Goodrich, for instance, didn’t like being listed on the front page of the Akron Beacon Journal as the biggest polluter in town, and we were able to capitalize on this to get them to commit to reducing their air emissions by 90% over three years.

Fortune magazine, in a 1993 profile called "Who scores best on the environment," used companies’ TRI emissions per dollar of sales as its primary index for environmental performance. It cited the TRI as a powerful tool for reducing emissions.

Citizens groups from Silicon Valley, California to Boston, Massachusetts have used the TRI to conduct good neighbor campaigns, where they have been able to force polluters to negotiate with the community, to institute pollution prevention techniques, and to establish open dialogues with their neighbors.

The amazing thing about much of this work is that, other than the passage of the original laws, more than a decade ago, it’s all taken place without new laws or regulations. The power of the press, the power of citizens organizing, and the financial realities of the companies have been the engines for a huge shift in our economy to pollution prevention and energy efficiency.