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Environmental Debate Heats Up 

EPA wants to reduce regulation of companies using toxic chemicals

Would you like to know what that gray cloud hovering over the industrial plant down the street is? You can find out by looking at the Toxics Release Inventory, a public database that tracks nearly 300 potentially harmful chemicals used for everything from manufacturing plastics to treating water. But if the Environmental Protection Agency has its way, the inventory soon will have much less information.

The EPA has proposed several changes to the inventory that the agency says are intended to save $2 million and reduce polluting companies' paperwork burden. Currently, companies must file reports each year and disclose spills and other toxic releases of 500 pounds or more of any specific chemical. The changes would allow companies to report every other year and disclose releases of 5,000 pounds or more of a chemical. (The companies already are allowed to report the data to the EPA under an honor system.) Businesses also could avoid reporting use of certain pollutants altogether, including mercury and DDT, if the companies claim to release "zero" amounts of those substances.

The proposal has environmentalists outraged. "It's unconscionable," said Hope Taylor-Guevara, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina. "There are a lot of needs to improve this program, not to weaken it."

Business leaders, of course, are happy with the possiblity of loosened restrictions. "The regulations at the EPA for too long have buried small business with over-burdensome reporting requirements," said Dan Danner, executive vice president of National Federation of Independent Business, in a prepared statement.

If all this sounds like a bunch of technical, jargon-laden mumbo jumbo, well, it is. But the Toxics Release Inventory is widely credited with giving public officials and grassroots groups tools to pressure companies into reducing pollution. It's proved useful for emergency responders, too: In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, governments and advocacy groups used the data to gauge environmental damage, including possible danger to drinking water.

Nationally, the amount of chemicals companies release is on the decline, according to the EPA. Though North Carolina in 2003 saw such amounts climb, chemical releases in Mecklenburg County declined from 583,073 in 2002 to 389,773 in 2003, the most recent year available.

The Toxics Release Inventory was created in response to a deadly chemical leak in 1984 at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. Doctors were at a loss how to treat many victims, since the community didn't know what chemical had escaped from the facility, and more than 2,000 people died. Chemical companies and other industries opposed the inventory, which was part of the Emergency Preparedness and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986. Fawn Pattison, executive director of the Agricultural Resources Center's Pesticide Education Project, said business interests have been angling to weaken the regulations ever since.

Not Clariant Corporation, a chemical manufacturer with plants in Charlotte and Mount Holly. Clariant spokesman Jim Thompson said his company has computer software designed to deal with regulations. "It's the cost of doing business," he said.

The EPA says its proposed changes will have the biggest impact on smaller businesses and taxpayers, allowing the agency to perform more rigorous analysis of data collected. The savings, the EPA says, would go to improving software used to report and analyze data, thus making it more useful to the public.

Environmentalists say that's all a chemical smokescreen. Taylor-Guevara, for example, said she worries the EPA's efforts could be an early signal of the agency's willingness to begin dismantling environmental programs. Recent years have seen the agency back away from much of the progress made in the 1980s and 1990s, she said.

The EPA is required to consider public comment before the proposals take effect. Christine Wunche, environmental attorney for the NC Public Interest Research Group, predicted more groups are likely to chime in as the debate heats up.

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