Mark Brandon is the Managing Partner of First Sustainable (http://www.firstsustainable.com), a registered investment advisory catering to socially responsible investors. In addition to Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), he may opine on social venturing, microfinance, community investing, clean technology commercialization, sustainability public policy, green products, and, on occasion, University of Texas Longhorn sports.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

EPA Tries to Pull a Disappearing Act on the Toxics Release Inventory

Note: Thanks to William Baue at Socialfunds for this story.

In late September 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed "burden reduction" rule changes to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), which requires facilities that produce toxic chemicals to report their wastes and emissions. Established by the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA) in response to the Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India in December 1984 that killed tens of thousands, TRI pioneered the use of disclosure (instead of regulation) as a powerful mitigator.

"EPA is launching a frontal assault on the Toxics Release Inventory program by proposing to convert the annual reporting requirement to alternate-year reporting," said Senator Jim Jeffords (I-VT) immediately after the announcement of the proposed change. "The Community Right-to-Know Act will become the Community Right-to-Know-Every-Other-Year Act."

Members of the socially responsible investing (SRI) community echoed this sentiment. Yesterday they launched the "SaveTRI.org" website to encourage those concerned about the changes to write to EPA during the public commentary period that was extended to January 13, 2006.

"What if we looked at corporate earnings every other year?" asks Julie Fox Gorte, vice president and chief social investment strategist for the Calvert Group, suggesting this analogy to highlight the absurdity of the proposal. "We might find corporations whose earnings didn't change between 2003 and 2005, but they sure changed a lot in the meantime!"

"Two years worth of no information in the investment world is forever--we react to what we see companies doing much more immediately than every other year," adds Dr. Gorte.

Other members of the SRI community, which relies heavily on TRI data to assess corporate environmental performance and potential financial risks, also express dismay at the proposal.

"The proposed changes would eviscerate the most cost-effective environmental rule the EPA has ever created in terms of increasing eco-efficiency and reducing risk," says Jon Naimon, founding president of Light Green Advisors (LGA), a Seattle-based SRI firm. "National emission reductions following the first TRI publication have been much faster than those generated by historical approaches to regulation embodied in the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act combined."

"TRI information is one of the few pieces of corporate accountability research that is rooted in physical quantities--and therefore it is empirical as opposed to normative information," Mr. Naimon told SocialFunds.com. "Ironically, for a Republican administration that ostensibly favors information and market-based approaches, TRI is a program that works by spurring market forces rather than requiring command-and-control technology-forcing compliance."

The proposal would also increase ten-fold (from 500 to 5,000 pounds of toxic waste) the threshold for non-reporting using "Form A," which requires no details. The changes would also allow facilities emitting persistent bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs), such as lead and mercury that have been associated with human health risks even at low levels, to use Form A to report wastes less than 500 pounds without providing details.

These changes impact SRI research and beyond--including the Toxic 100, which lists top corporate polluters by aggregating TRI data by company.

"For the Toxic 100 and SRI research in general, this EPA proposal would be a giant disappearing act," said Jim Boyce, director of the environment program at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts, which created the Toxic 100. "The increase in the Form A threshold would make important information vanish, because even a small polluter can affect a large number of people if it's located in an urban area."

"Some companies might be able to change their activities so that more pollution happens in the unreported years, making them look better than they really are," Prof. Boyce told SocialFunds.com.

Intentional or not, emissions change significantly year-to-year as business ebbs and flows with production lines closing temporarily and then reopening when market conditions improve, maintenance or accidents closing plants for extended times, and bad weather events intervening.

For example, in 2000 a BP chemical plant in Decatur, Alabama emitted 48,000 pounds of benzene, a known human carcinogen, and then rose to 62,000 pounds in 2001, according to data from the TRI Explorer program on the EPA website. In 2002, the releases dropped to 16,000 pounds, but the next year they increased six-fold to 104,000 pounds.

"Looking just at the even-numbered years at the BP Decatur plant, emissions declined 80 percent, but looking at the odd-numbered years, the data shows pollution increasing by 70 percent," said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). "When emissions are jumping back and forth five or even ten times higher or lower from one year to the next, it isn't hard to see why collecting data every other year just doesn't work."

Those concerned with the proposed changes can voice their opinion during the public commentary period through the EPA website or the SaveTRI.org website. A website for OMB Watch, which holds the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) accountable, links to seven different action alerts with templates for submitting comments on the proposed change, as well as to a report on the issue.

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