WASHINGTON – Maryland Rep. Albert Wynn called new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chemical reporting requirements insufficient, particularly in low-income areas, in the first-ever House environmental justice hearing Thursday.
Since 1986, the EPA has been required to release an inventory of toxins in the environment to the public, but a new rule enacted in December allowed facilities to report chemical releases on a shorter form to decrease paperwork.
But members of the subcommittee and witnesses testified that the change reduces the amount of toxic chemical information available, and that disproportionately hurts minorities and low-income families, who often live in areas where toxic chemicals are released and the shortened form is now primarily used.
Wynn, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Waste, questioned whether the EPA had incorporated the Environmental Justice Executive Order issued by President Clinton in 1994 into its rulemaking. The rule assures minority areas are not singled out for toxic emissions sites.
Granta Nakayama, assistant administrator of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance at the EPA, said the agency was trying to incorporate the order into its policies.
“I guess that’s a left-handed way of saying that in the last 13 years the EPA has not complied,” Wynn said.
The EPA defines environmental justice as fair treatment of all individuals regardless of financial status, race or ethnicity regarding the implementation and enforcement of environmental laws.
“The EPA is tinkering with a highly effective program,” in a way that will cost low-income families, said John Stephenson, director of natural resources and environment in the Government Accountability Office.
Stephenson said the GAO estimated the average savings to facilities using the abridged form was less than $900, and would significantly cut information available to communities.
The hearing highlighted pending legislation intended to correct deficiencies in the EPA’s environmental justice work and restore EPA requirements for reporting toxic emissions data.
Wynn said 23 states — including Maryland — 30 public health organizations and 200 environmental and public interest groups opposed the elimination of thousands of toxic release inventory reports, which the pending Toxic Right-To-Know Protection Act would reinstate.
“There was a pretty broad consensus that having the access to the information rather than information on a short form was pretty important,” he said.
Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., co-author of the pending Environmental Justice Act of 2007, said many minorities live close to industrial areas, where their health is compromised. Former EPA collecting methods enabled minority communities to research the toxicity of the environment and know the risks to their health.
“This is a public right-to-know program. It’s been highly successful because individuals can go into a database and type in their ZIP code and know what’s going on,” she said.
One witness acknowledged that the new EPA rule has not changed the amount of toxins released.
“While a change to (toxic release inventory) reporting requirements may not affect how much toxic waste is released to the environment, it could affect how much information communities will know about those toxic releases,” Stephenson said.
Molly O’Neill, EPA chief information officer, said the agency is tabulating toxic release inventory reports received in July, but it will not be able to determine the effectiveness of the new reporting practices because the rule has only been in place since December.