In the South Baltimore neighborhood of Brooklyn, blocks of rowhouses surround eclectic small businesses like grocery stores that sell used baby strollers and sidewalk stands of fresh vegetables.
But from the hilltops, residents can see white clouds trailing from smokestacks. Cancer is a word that frequently crosses their lips. The community is only two miles from the Fairfield area, one of the densest concentrations of chemical industry in the state.
“In our neighborhood, we have every chemical industry you could imagine,” said activist Doris McGuigan. “Without the laws, we wouldn’t have the foggiest idea what was in those plants.”
A bill introduced in the Maryland Legislature last week would expand the “Right to Know” law that governs toxic chemical disclosure and has been credited with forcing companies to reduce pollution and health risks.
The measure would require industries to report not only what chemicals they release into the environment, but also what chemicals are stored in their plants and used in their products.
Currently, under federal law, companies must report only the quantities of toxic chemicals they release directly into the air, water or as hazardous waste that needs to be specially treated.
“The right to know is something that should be basic and elementary for both the workers inside these factories and the public living around them,” said Sen. George W. Della, D- Baltimore, one of seven senators sponsoring the bill.
The Maryland “Toxics Safety Information Act” would expand the list of 651 chemicals now reported under the federal Toxic Release Inventory program. It would also force a wider range of industries to release information, but excludes small businesses that employ fewer than 10 people.
“For the most part, these companies are pretty darn responsible and they have done a good job cleaning up what they’re pumping into the air. I think they’ve shown they can be responsible business neighbors. I don’t think this is asking that much more of them,” Della said.
But representatives from the chemical industry strongly disagree. They oppose the bill, arguing that the new reporting requirements would add enormous costs to businesses.
“It is a way to literally destroy every last chemical company in the state,” said Carolyn Burridge, a lobbyist for the Maryland Chemical Industry Council.
She said that most manufacturers want to increase the use of chemicals. But they also want to reduce toxic pollutants that are released into the environment and that may pose health risks.
“It doesn’t matter how many toxics we use. It’s what we release into the environment that people should be concerned about,” she said.
The current law has been successful in curbing toxic releases. In Maryland, toxic air and water emissions have declined 48 percent from 1988 to 1994, according to EPA reports.
But Burridge said not to expect similar results from usage reporting. The proposed bill would not reduce chemical use, since many manufacturers have no choice in the matter, she said.
“If this law passes, they probably would use fewer chemicals because they’d be out of business. They’d be gone. They’d be in different states. I’d say they’d call Mayflower tonight instead of tomorrow,” she said.
But community activists say they have a right to know what chemicals are being trucked and stored in their neighborhoods. They also argue that health and emergency personnel need to know what chemicals a plant uses in the case of a fire or accident.
Environmentalists say many toxics are not actually released directly into the air or water, but leave the factories in products like paints, washing machine detergents or pesticides that eventually wind up as pollutants.
They argue that expanding the law to include use reporting would encourage companies to clean up their processes and substitute less toxic chemicals.
“One of our concerns is that although releases of toxic chemicals are going down, the use is going up, which means that it’s going out in their products and out to consumers,” said Bill Reilly, regional toxics coordinator for the EPA.
That is also what worries community residents.
Brooklyn resident and environmental activist Delores Barnes said things are better than the days when they used to find strange smells in the air and toxic dust on their cars.
But if the proposed Maryland bill becomes law, advocates argue, the public will know much more about what chemical threats may be hidden in their own neighborhoods. “It gives you a kind of standing. You just didn’t have a right to know before,” Barnes said. -30-