What is the Toxic Release Inventory?


Recent chatter in the sludgeosphere claiming that the Bushies’ loosening of the TRI (Toxic Release Inventory) reporting requirements will result in the release of “10 times as much pollution” is Chicken Little hyperbole.  E-mailing your members of congress and demanding that the EPA’s proposals be stopped would accomplish little more than getting your e-mail address added to your congressman’s list of green-loonies.  The Gutter Grunt, having nothing better to do for the past two weeks, has looked into this TRI panic and found it to be way, way overblown -- maybe even irresponsible. Somebody needs to get a grip. 

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single footnote.
When I got one of those e-mails recently saying that if the Bush EPA gets its way, industries will be able to go from dumping 500 lbs of pollution per year to 5000 lbs. per year, first I gasped, then I clenched my fists and started swearing at Karl Rove (again), and then I did what I do best -- I got confused. The source of my confusion was that I dimly recalled reading that industries can dump 33 lbs per month of pollutants down the drain without reporting. But 33 times 12 does not equal 500; it equals 396. Where does the 500 lbs. number come from? And where does the 33 lbs number come from anyway?? I mean can every industry in the country really dump 33 lbs of anything it wants every month? Radioactivity? Lead, mercury, and cadmium? Can I dump 33 lbs. of used motor oil down the sewer every month? I became not only confused, I became incredulous. Something didn’t smell right here. 

And so I e-mailed Dr. Caroline Snyder, sludge expert extraordinare’, to check my math and to see if she might know where the 33 lbs per month figure comes from and why it doesn’t click with the 500 lbs per year figure. Caroline, it turns out, had just mentioned the 33 lbs in her recent EPA expose’ in the International Journal of Environmental and Occupations Health (article). She directed me to footnote #1 of that article, which pointed me to Part 403 of the EPA Regulations. Yep, that’s where the bit about 33 lbs. per month is. (More on this later.) But Caroline drew a blank on the connection between 33 lbs per month and 500 lbs per year (she did agree with my math, or, more precisely, her calculator agreed with mine). Now, Dr. Snyder is one of the most knowledgeable sludge-warriors out there, so if she couldn’t help me sort this out, it was clear I was going to have to roll up my sleeves and sort it out for myself because, basically, I didn’t know who else to ask. Here’s what I found. 

What is this TRI business anyway?
Those of you old enough to remember 1984 may recall that it was a very bad year for India.  First, Indira Ghandi sent tanks and troops into the Golden Temple at Amistar and ended up killing at least 1000 Sikhs, exact count unknown.  Then Union Carbide's plant at Bhopal leaked methyl isocyanate gas that injured over 500,000 people, including over 4,000 dead, and over 50,000 permanently disabled, exact numbers unknown.  Next Ghandi herself was gunned down by (exactly) two of her Sikh bodyguards, which led to violent Hindu reprisals against Sikhs, killing at least 3,000, give or take 500.  Talk about a bad year of loose numbers . . .whew, and we thought Katrina was bad.

Of course, a few thousand dead Sikhs was not high on Congress’ list of worries -- most Congressmen don’t even know what a Sikh is. But the part about 4,000 of any kind of people being killed by a major American chemical company’s negligence really rattled Congress’ cage, especially since there was a methyl isocyanate leak at Middleport, NY a month before the Bhopal disaster. And nine months after Bhopal there was a leak of toxic aldicarb oxime at a Union Carbide plant in a town with the unlikely name of Institute, West Virginia. In fact, the Institute plant was the model for the one in Bhopal, and it also had large amounts of methly isocyanate on the premises. (Still does, I believe, although now it is owned by a French company.) So in 1986 Congress finally saw the ominous trend and passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (42 U.S.C. 1101 et seq.), which requires industries handling toxic substances to shoulder the responsibility for letting the community know what dangerous chemicals are being stored behind the fences. 

Whenever a federal law is passed, federal bureaucracy is certain to follow, and the one that followed EPCRA was a dozy. EPA was given the responsibility for enforcing the EPCRA, and so the EPA set up a whole new enforcement wing and drew up a set of regulations called Part 372 of Title 40 of the CFR (glossary). Part 372 sets forth a variety of required reports for those industries having more than 10 employees and that handle toxic substances. Among those reports is the so-called TRI report. Before explaining what the TRI reporting requirements are and how the Bushies want to change them, I need to say something about two other parts to Title 40 that require reporting. (Here is a link to the Government Printing Office web site where you can dial in a federal regulation number and see the regulation. It’s the best access to the CFR I’ve found.) 

First, as any sludge-warrior higher in rank than a muck-private knows, Part 503 of Title 40 constitutes the federal sludge regulations. Part 503 has a number of reporting requirements, but primarily for the sludge producers; i.e., poop-plants. The TRI issues have nothing to do with sludge reports required under Part 503. (But here’s a hint: a company can’t dump into the sewers what it doesn’t handle, and so the TRI database should be of interest to sludge-warriors who might want to make a case for what toxins could be in sludge from a given treatment plant. Read on.) 

Second, every company has to report what it discharges into rivers, sewers, etc.. These reports are dictated by Part 403, which essentially is about controlling what goes into Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTW) (glossary). Part 403 is where the bit about 33 lbs per month is found (actually 15 kgs.). That regulation is 40 CFR 403.12(p)(2). And, no, it doesn’t say that industries can dump 33 lbs or pollutants down the drain every month -- well, it sort of doesn't say that.   I’ll come back to this whole crazy issue in a later spew.  Too much of the CFR in one place is sure to result in a major headache. 

A rough way to look at how these reporting requirements interact is that Part 403 controls the reporting of what goes into the poop-plant, and Part 503 controls the reporting of what comes out of the poop-plant (and ends up on the fields in Madison, Virginia). Part 372 controls the reporting of toxins that companies actually handle, regardless of where they end up.
Anyway, the idea behind EPCRA was, and still is, that if a company is handling enough toxic material to potentially harm the people in the community, then the community has a right to know what’s behind the fence so they can at least organize emergency response teams, antidotes, body-bags, etc. If the company is not handling enough toxins to harm the community, then the company is not required to report under Part 372 (although they still have responsibilities under Part 403 for reporting discharges). Everyone can access the TRI database. Go to the EPA’s TRI  web site, key in your zip code, and see a list of all of the nearby industries that handle toxic substances, what substances they handle, and how much they handle per year. The idea is sort of like having an online sex offender’s list to let the neighborhood see where the creeps are.  I find this whole TRI effort -- both by the EPA and the industries -- amazing, given all of the industries, and chemicals, and ZIP codes there are in this country. TRI is an enormous and very useful database.  The 'crats and the companies have done good here.  

Nevertheless, “Toxic Release Inventory” is a bummer of a misnomer that causes confusion and a lot of unwarranted expectations and palpitations from demanding greenies. The Toxic Release Inventory is not (necessarily) an inventory of toxic chemicals that have been “released”, in the sense that most people understand that word. Under Part 372 “release” includes chemicals that are “treated, properly disposed of, recycled, or released into the environment.” In other words, TRI is an inventory of all toxic chemicals that are handled by a company. Example: If 5000 pounds of a toxic raw compound “X” comes into a company and is converted into Downy fabric softener with Cheetos as the byproduct, then the company has to report that 5000 pounds of X even though there was no release or improper disposal of even 1 oz. of toxins. Why didn’t the EPA ‘crats just call it a Toxins Inventory? Well, because they’re ‘crats.

Blessed are the short-form reporters, for they shall avoid unnecessary expense and frustration.
Since the EPCRA was passed in 1986, the EPA has expanded the original TRI reporting requirements by about a factor of 2. They have increased the number (now over 600) of chemicals that must be reported and the types of industries that must report. They have added a special class of reportable toxins called PBT -- persistently bioaccumulative toxins (glossary). PBT’s are the terror toxins, and each one has to be watched closer than an al Qaeda operative with a lumpy back-pack and a pilot’s license. All of the toxins have to be reported, just some of them in more detail than others. Which brings us to Form R and Form A. 

Since 1994, the EPA has taken an approach to TRI reporting analogous to the one taken by the IRS in reporting income. Depending on how big you are and how much stuff you got, you either fill out a long, arduous form (5 pages) or a short, simple form (2 pages). In TRI lingo, the long form is Form R  and the short one is Form A. Each toxin must be reported on its own form. So if a company handles 20 listed toxins in sufficient amounts, it has to fill out Form R’s for all 20 -- 100 pages. But like tax forms, most of the time and money is consumed not in filling in the blanks but in collecting the data and figuring out the forms. The .pdf instruction document for Form R is 205 pages. Much to the EPA’s credit they have made impressive attempts to simplify the reporting by producing reporting software and developing Internet reporting protocols. But a lot of this work is still in the testing phase. 

The proposed changes in the TRI reporting requirements.
The major proposals now under consideration by the EPA will allow more companies to down-grade their reports to a Form A. As it stands now, a company may use Form A to report a listed toxin if the Annual Reportable Amount of the toxin is less than 500 lbs per year. What is the Annual Reportable Amount? Well, that is defined at 40 CFR 372.27(a). It is, essentially, the amount of the toxin that leaves the plant either by being burnt for energy, recycled, treated, released, or disposed of offsite. All PBT’s must presently be reported on Form R regardless of how they are handled.

The proposed regulations will increase the Annual Reportable Amount to 5,000 lbs. per year. This doesn’t mean that companies will be able to discharge 10x as much pollution without reporting; it means that they will be able to recycle, treat, dispose of, or release 10x as much without having to report on Form R -- they will still have to report their reportable toxins on Form A. They will also still have to continue reporting pollutant discharges and releases under Part 403 and the other required reports under Part 372.

In addition the proposed TRI reporting changes will allow companies to use Form A to report handling of PBT’s under 500 lbs. per year, so long as there is no disposal or release of any PBT’s to the environment. If any PBT is released, then it’s back to the long form. In addition, every company must continue to use Form R to report all handling of dioxin and dioxin-like compounds, regardless of amounts or release.

Finally, contrary to the e-scuttlebutt, the EPA has not yet “proposed” allowing companies to go from annual to biennial TRI reporting. What the EPA has done is to send nice Mr. Cheney, President of the Senate, a brief letter to inform Congress that within 12 to 24 months the EPA will probably make such a proposal. The law requires the EPA to warn Congress a year ahead of time that they are going to propose a change to TRI reports. 

In spite of my best efforts, including reading EPA’s letter to Cheney and the EPA propaganda, I cannot figure out what this biennial reporting means. Is it condensing everything that happens during a two year period into just one report; i.e. all the data but sent half as often? Or is it just reporting what happens during every other year? In other words, will the 2008 biennial report include all the data from 2007 and 2008, or will it just include the data from 2008, and we never see the 2007 data? 

As I understand the EPA’s problem, due to the Iraq war and tax cuts for high-income earners, the EPA doesn't have the money and people-power to handle all the data that’s coming in; therefore, a lot of that data doesn’t become available to the public for up to 18 months. (Sounds almost as bad as the Patent Office.) If the EPA can cut the data inflow in half and get it to the public in 6 months, everybody is better off.  At least, that’s the theory.

Hyperbole and hyperventilating greenies 
So where does all of this bull-sludge about companies discharging 10x as much pollution come from? It appears to be coming principally from a nonprofit group called “OMB Watch.” Here’s their link, and here’s what OMB Watch tells the public the TRI proposals will do:

“The EPA has proposed three changes, each of which would dramatically cut information available to the public on toxic pollution. The agency is proposing to:

  • Move from the current annual reporting requirement to every other year reporting for all facilities, eliminating half of all TRI data;
  • Allow companies to release ten times as much pollution before being required to report the details of how much toxic pollution was produced and where it went;
  • Permit facilities to withhold information on low-level production of persistent bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs), including lead and mercury, which are dangerous even in very small quantities because they are toxic, persist in the environment, and build up in people's bodies.”

These statements are examples of your typical deception by half-truth. In fact, on March 11, 2005 OMB Watch sent a 6-page letter to the EPA to complain about the TRI proposals, and in that letter they did not raise a single one of the above points. What they complained about were details such as 1) under the proposed changes a company who gets to file Form A would not have to report the company’s longitude and latitude year after year. (The EPA can get this info from other reports required of the company.); and 2) companies won’t have to report chemicals released in storm water sufficiently (But that is reported under Part 403.). Not once did OMB Watch complain to the EPA about 10x as much pollution being released. Why not? Because they know it’s not true and it’s not a valid issue.

But on it's web page for the public OMB Watch blatantly spins the TRI proposals as if they're an eco-tragedy in the making.  Why?  Well, because they are a nonprofit, and non-profits need donations to survive, and scared, pissed-off people dig deeper. 

Sludge warriors cannot afford to be associated with or promote hyperbole and fiction. Lack of candor is one of the main, if not the main, complaint we have with the sludge industry, the EPA, and the state health and environmental agencies. If we resort to hyperbole and fiction to promote our cause, we will lose. Companies like Synagro have the bucks and the PR people to carry out campaigns of public deception; we have honesty, candor, and the facts. 

As a general operating principal, the Gutter Grunt suggests that when some Chicken Little franticly e-mails you with a request to write your congressman or e-mail Bush and make demands about a matter you know nothing about, there are only two intellectually honest things you can do.  You can delete the frantic e-mail and forget you ever got it, or you can take the effort to find out what the facts are and then make a well-considered decision whether or not you agree.  The fact that you don't have time to research the issue is not, in my opinion, sufficient excuse to shoot off a bunch of ill-informed demands to politicians. The Internet is a wonderful tool for promoting and implementing populism and democracy.  But it is also an effective tool for spreading false information, whether with good intentions or ill.



Copyright, 2005 - 2012, Denis O'Brien (aka The Gutter Grunt).  All rights reserved.