EPA Backtracks on Easing Toxin Rule

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 30, 2006

Under pressure from Democratic senators, the Bush administration has modified its proposal to ease public reporting requirements for companies that handle or release toxic chemicals.

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new rules for the Toxics Release Inventory, an annual accounting of more than 650 chemicals that industry releases into the air, land and water. The changes would raise the threshold for reporting releases of toxic chemicals in detail from 500 to 5,000 pounds and would allow companies to report every other year instead of annually.

In response, New Jersey Democratic senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez in July blocked confirmation of Bush's nominee to head the EPA's Office of Environmental Information, Molly O'Neill.

EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson, in a letter obtained by The Washington Post, has written to the two senators telling them that he is revising the proposal to restore the requirement for annual reports. "Your perspective on the program is invaluable to us," Johnson wrote.

The EPA had been tinkering with its proposal since shortly before this month's midterm elections, but Johnson's letter highlights how the political climate has shifted since the Democrats won control of the House and Senate. The administration is not likely to bend on its top environmental priorities, such as climate change, but it may make concessions on other fronts.

James L. Connaughton, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said in an interview after the elections that the administration may be able to make common cause with Democrats on some issues.

"The history of environmental legislation is a history of reasonable balance," Connaughton said. "At the end of the day, if you want to see progress on the environment, you got to strike that reasonable balance."

Lautenberg, who said he will release his hold on O'Neill's nomination but will continue to fight any effort to weaken the toxin-reporting requirements, said the administration's new flexibility underscores how lawmakers' stance is likely to change over the next two years.

"Unlike the last six years, the Bush administration will no longer get a free pass from Congress," he said in a statement. "Democrats will now control the EPA's budget and will run the committees that oversee the agency's activities. EPA will be held accountable for every abuse and misreading of the law it engages in."

Congress created the Toxics Release Inventory program 20 years ago in the wake of the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, where an accidental release of toxins killed and injured thousands of people living near the plant. U.S. toxic releases have dropped sharply since companies were compelled to file the reports, but some complain that the regulation is too costly.

The EPA had calculated that industry could save $2 million a year by reporting its releases every other year. It would save an additional $7.4 million by no longer having to report in detail on toxic releases between 500 and 5,000 pounds or on releases of persistent toxins such as lead and mercury below 50 pounds.

Sean Moulton, who directs federal information policy for the public policy watchdog group OMB Watch, said the proposal emphasized saving money for the agency and industry over protecting the public's health.

"The EPA just hasn't done its homework on these proposals," Moulton said. "They haven't done the research on whether there are serious health risks [associated with] the different thresholds they're proposing."

Alex Fidis, a staff attorney at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy organization, said the EPA could reduce the regulatory burden on industry by developing software to help companies calculate their harmful releases and file their reports electronically.

The EPA plans to issue a final rule on the reporting program "by the end of the year," said spokeswoman Jennifer Wood. She said officials are weighing the more than 100,000 comments they received, many objecting to the changes.

"EPA's working to making a good program better," Wood said.

Lautenberg said he would continue to press the administration to abandon the new rule.

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