Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Toxics Release and the Right to Know

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Toxics Release and the Right to Know

Article excerpt

WHEN the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, released clouds of methyl-isocyanate mist that killed thousands of people and poisoned tens of thousands more one night in December 1984, Congress was quick to act. (Quick by congressional standards, that is.) Twelve months later, it passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act.

The legislation requires businesses to provide regular hard data on toxic chemical stocks and how such chemicals are disposed of. The heart of the law is the "toxics-release inventory" that manufacturing facilities must make to the Environmental Protection Agency every year, which covers 320 listed chemicals. This includes toxics injected underground, discharged to sewage-treatment plants, or shipped elsewhere for storage or treatment, as well as chemicals simply released into the air, water, or ground.

In the years since, this law - and especially its provision for letting people know the amounts and whereabouts of industrial poisons in their communities - has done much to help reduce the use and discharge of dangerous chemicals. It's a simple formula: More information leads to public pressure, which leads to reform.

In looking at the latest toxics-release data, for example, the private watchdog group Citizen Action last week cited 3M, Fort Howard Steel, General Motors, and National Steel among "an increasing number of companies {that} should be noted for their real actions to reduce toxic pollution."

The overall picture, however, leaves much to be desired. For manufacturing firms required to report in 1990, there was a total release of more than 400 million pounds of chemicals known or suspected to be carcinogenic and 1.2 billion pounds believed to cause birth defects. (One weakness of the law is that it takes 18 months to make the release inventory public.)

Also, in surveying the 50 facilities reporting the largest decreases over the previous year, Citizen Action concluded that "most reported reductions were due, not to pollution reduction efforts, but rather to changes in reporting and loopholes in the law."

It should be made clear that these are legal chemical releases. But the point of the right-to-know law is to let the public know whose backyard the releases are in and thus influence politicians, regulators, and business executives to do something about them. …

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