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Toxics Disclosure: Challenges and Victories in the States

 

Recently, in New Jersey, Governor Jon Corzine's administration proposed rule changes that threaten to prevent the public from accessing key environmental information about potential hazardous facilities in the state.  Advocates say the environmental information that would be withheld would block public access to information that estimates the number of people who would be put at risk "if a toxic chemical disaster occurred at any of the state regulated 12 sites or any of the 85 state sites under federal oversight."

The state Department of Environmental Protection, says that improving security, not hindering transparency, is the intent behind the proposed changes.  "In this age of domestic security, there's a concern not to allow information to be released to the public that could have an adverse effect," said DEP spokeswoman Elaine Makatura.  According to David Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, "[w]e obtain the greatest chemical security by making sure companies use the least toxic alternatives and safer technology, and one way to ensure that is the public's right to know what would be the consequences of a worst-case scenario at these facilities."

The New Jersey Work Environment Council, an alliance of labor and environmental groups, are leading the fight against the Administration's efforts. "It's infuriating," said the council's director. "The state is really going backwards on toxic issues. New Jersey is clearly making a move in the direction of greater secrecy."  He states, "[e]ven the secretive Bush-Cheney EPA has not attempted to hide this vital information."  Engler also points out that enacting the proposed changes would be against federal law which says that states cannot withhold from the public information about dangerous substances that are directed to be overseen by the EPA.          

Right to Know Laws Are Important to Protect the Public Welfare:   Factories and manufacturers release significant amount of dangerous toxins into our communities through the air we breath and our water systems. Since the 1990s, environmental right to know laws have proven to be one of most effective mechanisms to protect our environment and health.  Through public disclosure of environmental information the public interest can be protected in numerous ways.  For example. communities with knowledge of potential risks can address safety issues, devise plans in case an emergency occurs, and implement incentives to encourage increased self-regulation by companies. Further, when individuals have information regarding the environmental harms from industry in their area they can be more active participants in public welfare discussions, such as debates about permits and land use. 

Additionally, consumers armed with better information can make better decisions, press for safer drinking water and environmental conditions, and exert pressure to eliminate unnecessary toxic exposure.  Informed workers can negotiate safer, less hazardous working conditions, or demand fair compensation for undertaking risky employment. Overall, right to know laws create a more efficient marketplace by increasing transparency and public access to information. 

The  federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-know Act (EPCRA) was passed in 1986 with the intent of helping states and communities better protect the public.  The law laid out several right to know provisions such as the emission reporting system called the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI).  Since 1986 the passage of the EPCRA, other federal, state (such as New YorkNorth CarolinaIllinois, and California) and local laws have led to increased information being released for public consumption.  The enacted state right to know laws have varied, some have been modeled after the federal EPCRA law, others, such as Massachusetts and New Jersey have included new reporting requirements for their TRI programs.

Appeals Court Decision Gives Right to Know Advocates Hope: Today (and to some extent always) corporations and industry-friendly legislators are attacking environmental right to know laws, oftentimes veiling their efforts to reduce transparency and public access to information under the guise of attempting to protect national security.

Until recently, the EPA had waffled on whether to permit state and local authorities to add to federal monitoring requirements. In 2006, however -- despite protests from many environmental organizations -- the EPA decided it alone "would fix inadequate monitoring requirements." This August, however, in a victory for environmental right to know laws, a federal appeals courtruled against a rule that limited the right of states to add to the "monitoring requirements of the Clean Air Act."

Sierra Club Director Carl Pope stated, "[t]his is a huge victory against one of the most egregious rollbacks of environmental protections in our nation's history.  As one of the first rollbacks of the Bush Administration, this rule helped set a pattern of limiting the application of environmental laws to benefit polluters and denying the public the right to know about pollution in their communities. Public health should be a top priority, not polluters' profits. Today's decision will give states back the tools they need to hold polluters accountable and help ensure that everyone has clean, healthy air to breathe."

 

Resources

US PIRG, Right to Know
OMB Watch, Environmental Right to Know
Center for Progressive Reform, The Public Right to Know
N.J. May Block Information on Chemical Plants
D.C. Circuit Bolsters State Monitoring of Air Pollution