TCS Daily

The Good and (Mostly) Bad News on EPA's Toxics Report

By Kenneth Green - April 16, 2001 12:00 AM

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recently released 1999 Toxics Release Inventory report contains a lot of good news for those concerned about safety, health, and environmental quality, but some political pressure groups are already spinning the data to score political points. The TRI, as it is known, serves as an annual inventory that tracks the use and "release" of over 650 different chemicals from over 22,000 companies. The ease with which its data can be abused represents one of the biggest problems with a well-intended program that is great in theory, but flawed in practice.

TRI data have many limitations, and most of them facilitate disinformation more easily than they serve the goal of educating the public about the risk of toxic exposures.

Jeremiah Baumann, speaking for the Ralph Nader-founded Public Interest Research Group, said the TRI data "show hundreds of millions of pounds of releases of arsenic and billions of pounds of toxic pollution from mines, just weeks after the Bush administration suspended protections for both of these threats."

TRI's main failing is that it dumps raw data without any meaningful risk information. It also frequently double and triple counts releases, and counts chemical recycling or safe disposal as an "environmental release." Indeed, many of the limitations of TRI data are clearly stated in the latest TRI report, which explains, "Release estimates alone are not sufficient to determine exposure or to calculate potential adverse effects on human health and the environment."

Let's look at two examples, from a 1998 report by the Reason Public Policy Institute (RPPI).

N-hexane is used to extract oil from soybeans, cottonseed, and peanuts, and to make adhesives and some polymers. However, the amount of hexane defined as "waste" under TRI in 1995 was actually 30 times greater than the amount of hexane produced in 1995. How can one "waste" more than one produces? One can't, but TRI fails to capture the salient fact that 98 percent of the reported "waste" was recycled repeatedly into the production process without ever leaving the production site.

And consider the story of Charter Steel. In 1994, Wisconsin Citizen Action and Citizens for a Better Environment released a study called Poisons in Our Neighborhoods: Toxic Pollution in Wisconsin, putting Charter Steel of Saukville at #2 on their list of Wisconsin's "dirty dozen for TRI releases totaling 2,645,088 pounds. "This is the amount of toxic waste we are certain is being thrown into Wisconsin's environment," said a spokesperson for the environmental groups.

But the "toxic waste" that Charter was supposedly releasing was spent pickle liquor, a byproduct of steel manufacturing that contains sulfuric acid. The pickle liquor was not being "thrown into Wisconsin's environment," instead, it was being given for free to sewage treatment plants, which used the sulfuric acid to help treat their sewage water. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District saved $300,000 per year because of Charter Steel's production of this "hazardous waste."

Unfortunately, while the limitations of TRI data have been known for years, little has been done to repair them. The TRI report still explains that safe disposal is listed as an environmental release: "Off-site releases include metals and metal compounds transferred off-site for solidification / stabilization and for wastewater treatment, including to [Publicly Owned Treatment Works]."

While the focus of environmental extremists will be on the raw poundage of chemicals used and "released," there's impressive news in the latest TRI report (though it is subject to the same caveats as all the rest). Over the previous decade, the executive summary points out, "All on-site release categories showed decreases. Air emissions decreased by 61 percent....Surface water discharges decreased by 66 percent...underground injection decreased by 32 percent...and on-site land releases decreased by 23 percent."

As one of those "good in theory, flawed in practice" ideas, the TRI report offers ammunition to environmental demagogues who are more intent on scaring the public than on informing people about the genuine risks they face, and how they can best be managed.

Dr. Kenneth Green directed a two-study series on Right to Know laws for the Reason Public Policy Institute in 1998. The reports are available at The 1999 TRI report can be found at


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