Policy Study

Environmental Information

The Toxics Release Inventory, Stakeholder Participation, and the Right to Know - Part I

Executive Summary

Environmental-information initiatives, including “right-to-know” laws, currently enjoy widespread popularity. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has expanded its Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), a database of chemical releases and some chemical uses, and further expansion of the TRI to include “materials accounting” is under consideration. The information generated by right-toknow laws, especially TRI data, has found many different uses. The federal government, and some state governments, use it to track their environmental progress. Journalists write about it; researchers analyze it; environmental groups lobby on the basis of it; and companies and industry groups discuss it in their annual reports. But in terms of securing greater environmental quality and communicating meaningful information about the environment, the TRI process has substantial limitations, as discussed in Part One of this two-part study. Some of the TRI limitations identified in part One of this study include:

  • A focus on materials-use reduction, often irrespective of demonstrated risk-reduction or environmental quality gain;
  • Inaccurate characterizations of the health and environmental effects of chemical use, often failing to distinguish between safer and riskier chemicals, and between chemical use that exposes people or communities to potential harm and chemical use that is safely managed;
  • Overestimation of actual releases through double-counting reported releases, transfers, or waste;
  • Inconsistent and incomplete coverage of chemicals and facilities;
  • Creation of an open-ended right of citizens to sue over legal violations that may have no relation to personal harm, risk-reduction. or environmental quality;
  • The potential to expose trade secrets to competitors, or facilitate industrial sabotage.

This study summarizes the current state of alternative environmental information and environmental management systems, and compares them with traditional environmental information and environmental management measures, such as the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, TRI and Proposition 65. Some of those alternative systems include:

  • Environmental performance measures, such as those of EPA or the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which measure environmental variables people find relevant and meaningful.
  • Environmental-management systems, which make it easier for firms to adopt risk-reduction and sourcereduction goals that fit their own local circumstances. These include private environmental-management codes (Responsible Care, The Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies Principles, The Global Environmental Management Initiative, ISO 14000), but they also include nonregulatory state programs that strive to reduce environmental risk or materials use for voluntarily participating companies through technical assistance, pollution-prevention incentives, or flexible compliance. They also include accident-management and accident-prevention programs which can be adopted through private insurance companies, through the action of Local Emergency Planning Committees, or through membership in an industry program such as Chemtrec.
  • Mechanisms for stakeholder involvement, which increase the ability of relevant stakeholders to become informed about, and provide input regarding, relevant environmental impacts that affect them in their communities. These run the gamut from company communication policies, such as Good Neighbor Policies, to the formation of community groups to deal with well-established environmental procedures like brownfields redevelopment, to the formation of totally new coalitions of stakeholders to address emerging concerns such as watershed restoration.

After reviewing the available alternative environmental information and environmental management systems in development, this study concludes that government, at this point, cannot identify the optimal environmental information or environmental management systems that best address the needs of all the stakeholders. Government should, we conclude, allow and encourage the discovery process to continue, a process in which different reporting and participation mechanisms emerge and compete to provide useful information at reasonable cost. Companies and communities are constantly experimenting with different instruments to determine which ones best serve their needs.

Should government choose not to facilitate this process, they should at least refrain from foreclosing the development of such options by mandating a one-size-fits-all reporting scheme-such as a dramatically expanded TRI-that may offer information that is not always directed at disclosing potential harms to the public or ecosystems.