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EPA may cut back on reports

Nov. 29, 2005

by LAUREN MAJOR, reporter

Companies may be required to release less information about their pollution levels less frequently if the latest Environmental Protection Agency recommendations are approved by Congress.

"We're trying to make the submission process more streamlined and require less effort from the companies," said Morton Wakeland, an environmental scientist and TRI program coordinator at EPA.

The Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986 requires companies to fill out a Toxic Release Inventory every year, which details the types and amounts of their toxic chemical pollution.

The TRI allows the media and residents of an area to know the specific chemical pollution levels released by nearby companies.

"I am (fully) in favor of full disclosure to the citizens of the United States. It's our taxpayer dollars, our planet and our health. There is a lot at stake here," said Dr. Sara Stone, professor of journalism.

The EPA's proposal would require companies to release a report only every other year and exempt some companies from issuing a full report.

Now, companies who release fewer than 500 pounds of waste per year can file a shorter TRI, which shows only the chemicals being released, not the amount. All companies who release fewer than 5,000 pounds of waste could file the shorter report, Wakeland said.

"This is opening it up for companies to pollute more and get away with it," said Amy Ortiz, an environmental studies major and public relations chairwoman of the Environmental Concern Organization.

"The new proposal isn't looking out for American citizens but for big businesses, who are only hurting themselves and their own families by polluting so much," she said.

The EPA estimates the proposal will save 165,000 hours per year in filing and processing the reports.

"There's a lot of red tape, and they would rather not deal with it. But detailed reports on pollution not only enable the EPA and the community to be more aware but also make the companies aware of their pollution levels," said Peter van Walsum, an assistant professor of environmental studies.

Wakeland said he isn't sure if the changes could keep the public ignorant of potentially problematic changes in the area's pollution level.

"If the change is from 500 to 510 pounds per year, it isn't a problem. But, if it is from 500 to 1,000 pounds, it could be a problem. Even if they release less than 5,000 pounds of waste per year, companies will have to report a significant change in pollution levels. We will just have to decide what constitutes a significant change," he said.

Van Walsum said even though releasing less information could keep the public unaware of rising pollution levels, the switch may hurt the company's image.

"If the public don't know what is going on, they may become more suspicious. People fear the unknown," he said.

There is technology available to eliminate most kinds of waste, and reducing their waste could save companies money in the long run.

But if a company doesn't have to report its waste levels, it will probably not be aware of them, and it is unlikely they will make an effort to reduce them, van Walsum said.

But the changes haven't been approved yet.

"This is just a proposal put out for comment, some changes may be made to it or it may not happen at all," Wakeland said.