Sunday, September 13, 2009

Right to Know

"Every American has the right to know the chemicals to which they may be exposed in their daily living. Right-to-know laws provide information about possible chemical exposures." EPA website: Protect the Environment: Learn about your right to know.

A recent NW Examiner article documenting the contradictions and discrepencies in the emissions reports from ESCO Corp. reveals a troubling picture of the current state of toxins reporting. First established by the EPA in 1986, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) was passed in response to concerns regarding environmental and safety hazards posed by the storage and handling of toxic chemicals. These concerns were triggered by the disaster in Bhopal, India. The Bhopal disaster, or Bhopal gas tragedy, was an industrial disaster that took place at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in the Indian city of Bhopal, Madhaya Pradesh. At midnight on 3 December 1984, the plant released an estimated 42 tons of toxic methyl isocynates (MIC) gas, exposing more than 500,000 people to MIC and other chemicals. The first official death toll was 2,259. The government of Madhya Pradesh has confirmed a total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas release. Others estimate 8,000-10,000 died within 72 hours and 25,000 have since died from gas-related diseases.

The Bhopal disaster is frequently cited as the world's worst industrial disaster. To reduce the likelihood of such a disaster in the United States, Congress imposed requirements on both states and regulated facilities, a hallmark of which was the creation, in 1988, of the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), a database which provides information to the public about releases of toxic chemicals from manufacturing facilities into the environment through the air, water and land.
But what Paul Koberstein of The Cascadia Times, the investigative reporter responsible for the September Examiner article, uncovered as he plumbed the depths of the many reports of ESCO emissions is a dizzying array of calculations and varying lists of toxins, one list reported to EPA for TRI, one to DEQ, others that come up on their testing reports, and still others reported nowhere in the previous reports that come up in the fenceline monitoring that was conducted by Cooper Environmental Services. The effect for residents of the NW neighborhood reading this article is confusing and troubling. As one neighbor asked me after reading it, "why do they (ESCO) seem to lie if there is nothing to hide?"

The intent behind TRI and emissions reporting is to inform the public. But the information is anything but clear, often inspiring fear and confusion among citizens trying to assess their own risk of living in proximity to industrial sources of pollution. That's why the study of schools and industrial air pollution, reported in the USA Today report, was so useful. It translated complex industrial emissions information into data the public could understand: health risks. Was it a smoking gun, no? But using highly sophisticated risk drivers, which balanced the proportional toxicity of each chemical, its volume, smokestack heights and prevailing wind patterns that would effect its concentrations, it certainly gave us a blueprint for where to start. Looking at the model, and understanding that this model successfully predicted the high levels of toxins in the Ohio school that was subsequently shut down, it was reasonable in the wake of the publication of this report, for communities to investigate further when the data indicated a high probability of a toxic industrial pollution hot spot.

ESCO's answer to the USA Today report, as stated by Carter Webb at the Aug. 7th House Health Committee Interim Workgroup hearing chaired by Rep. Mitch Greenlick: "We look at the DEQ and the ESCO monitoring data and we see that our operations are not creating a risk to anyone." But, in reality, and in closer scrutiny of this self-reported data, and self-funded monitoring that Mr. Webb is referring to, is not that there is any solid science backing the understanding that the ESCO emissions don't cause physical harm or long term health risks. But that instead, ESCO emissions, which include heavy metals like nickel, lead, manganese and Chromium VI - all known to perpetuate indefinitely in the environment once introduced - fall under current ambient benchmark concentrations by which the company is regulated. In other words, the company is fully compliant with the letter of their permit.

But science has not established that there is any safe levels for lead and manganese, known neurotoxins; or Chromium VI the cancer causing compound made famous in Julia Robert's portrayal of Erin Brochovich. Or the synergistic health effects of the 64+ toxic chemicals listed in the emissions reports from ESCO.

This is industry's dilemma. They are paying significant amounts in fees to be permitted to pollute (money that amounts to 70% of DEQ's budget). And I imagine that they pay equal if not greater amounts to meet their compliance requirements and generally jump through the hoops to provide the reports required of them, not to mention the lobbyists to protect them. All for what? If you are not buying public trust with this investment than really what good is it? The EPA, the Clean Air Act, Citizens Right to Know, and TRI are all efforts by our federal government to provide US citizens with peace of mind. If the state agency's process of administering the regulations is flawed, or certainly its stringency - and the agency's loyalty -suspect, then the money and energy that industry dumps into the regulatory process is a waste. My argument is that industry needs transparency and a strong regulatory process as much as neighboring residents, to bank the public trust they so desperately depend on to continue to operate their facilities, emissions from which trespass on our public airshed in annoying odors and black dust.

At this point we can neither afford to go back to unregulated, unfettered toxic industrial emissions, or stay where we are, trapped by confusion, suspicion and fear. Our city and state legislators must provide us with the leadership to forge a new path forward, one that ties regulation firmly to the objective of realizing specific public health outcomes when science exists, and precautionary health safeguards when negative health outcomes can be reasonably anticipated.

1 comment:

  1. Are you also sending these out as letters to the editor?...your last paragraph lends itself well to the challenge of making a good sound bite out of this.