ANNAPOLIS – Proponents of a bill to expand the public’s right to know about toxic chemical use in their neighborhoods got an easy reception from a Senate committee Tuesday.
The committee saved its tough questions for chemical industry representatives, who argued that telling residents what is used in their plants would give away trade secrets.
“Do you think that people ought to wait until the next explosion to find out what chemicals are in there?” asked Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery.
The proposed Toxics Safety Information Act would require companies to make public the names and amounts of toxic chemicals stored in their plants and used in their products.
With five of eleven senators on the Environmental and Economic Affairs committee co-sponsoring the bill, one more vote would send the legislation to the Senate floor.
Currently, under federal law, companies must report what quantities of toxic chemicals they release directly into the air, water or as hazardous waste that needs to be specially treated.
Environmentalists say emission reporting does not catch all pollutants. Many toxics leave factories in products like paint, washing machine detergents or pesticides that eventually wind up in the water or dumps, critics say.
But representatives from the business community called the bill a “major shift” in current law governing toxic chemical reporting.
Carolyn Burridge, a lobbyist for the Maryland Chemical Industry Council, and others were particularly concerned that reporting what chemicals they use and in what amounts could give their trade secrets away to competitors.
They also argued that the cost would be prohibitive. Steve Pattison of Baltimore Gas and Electric estimated the new reporting would cost about $250,000 a year.
On the other side were three women from South Baltimore, sharing colorful anecdotes about living in a neighborhood near the industrialized Fairfield area, which they called the “hole in the donut of chemical industry.”
The women told the committee they wanted to know what chemicals are being trucked through and stored in their neighborhoods. They still remember the days 20 years ago when they woke up to toxic dust on their cars from nearby smokestacks.
“There should be no secrets here. There’s no reason the information asked for in this bill should not be privy to the community,” said Brooklyn neighborhood activist Delores Barnes.
They also argued that health and emergency personnel need to know what chemicals a plant uses in the case of a fire or accident.
“Without all the pieces of the puzzle, you can’t make very good decisions. We need to know what’s stored here. We need to know what’s in our air here,” said Doris McGuigan.
Some business representatives recommended taking the summer to study the proposal and flesh out the details.
But Burridge, the chemical industry lobbyist, was blunt about her opposition to the bill.
“We might as well study why the earth is flat,” she said. The bill, she added, “is a fundamentally flawed concept, and we think it would be detrimental to…industry.”
Environmental groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which helped draft the bill, offered several amendments Tuesday to make the measure more palatable to the business community. While the changes would bring the bill more in line with the federal Toxics Reduction Inventory Act, the state legislation would still be stricter.
Michael Haire of the Maryland Department of Environment representative said the agency would study the amendments. -30-