updated 10/3/2003 11:14:07 PM ET 2003-10-04T03:14:07

The government is studying ways to ease requirements for industry to report the toxic chemicals they put into the environment. Industry has been asking for flexibility, which environmentalists fear will lead to weakened protections.

Each year, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory offers a snapshot of the nation’s pollution — billions of pounds of chemicals, such as copper and zinc compounds, hydrochloric acid and lead released by hard-rock mining companies, coal-burning power plants and other industrial facilities.

Companies provide the figures, and EPA converts them into a database available on the Internet, with maps by state and county. Only facilities that manufacture, process or use a listed toxic chemical in an amount exceeding certain limits are required to report their releases to EPA.

Kimberly Nelson, EPA’s top official for environmental information, told lawmakers Thursday the agency will make public within the next several months a list of options it is considering, before starting down the path of making regulatory changes.

That list is now being scrutinized by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, she said.

BALANCING BURDEN, INFO

“We’d like to make it easier, we’d like to make it faster and we’d like to make it less burdensome,” Nelson said in an interview, after testifying before the House Resources Committee’s energy and minerals resources subcommittee.

“But with every option we look at for reducing burden, we’re looking at how to keep providing important information to the public,” she added. “It’s a struggle to find the fine line between reducing burden and providing information.”

Nelson told the subcommittee that the annual inventory, since it began in 1987, “has been the centerpiece of the agency’s right-to-know programs,” a useful tool for people to learn how to protect their environment and for businesses to gain awareness of their pollution.

EPA is mulling options including letting more companies fill out a short form listing only the types of chemical used, and requiring what gets reported based on new categories of facilities and chemicals.

The longer forms now required of many companies let the public know what types of chemical are used and the amounts, and whether they were recycled or released as waste into the air, water or land.

INDUSTRY’S CONCERNS

The agency’s proposals represent a response in part to industry pressure, exerted in lawsuits against EPA over the Toxics Release Inventory by the National Mining Association and Barrick Gold Corp.

Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., who has a master’s degree in mining geology and helped rejuvenate the Congressional Mining Caucus to promote the mining industry, urged Nelson to ease the reporting guidelines.

Echoing Barrick’s concerns, Gibbons said many of the reported toxic chemicals are tied up in waste rock placed in properly designed storage areas and not released into the environment.

“I’m questioning whether the EPA really believes that the simple moving around of dirt is a proper thing to include in the Toxics Release Inventory,” Gibbons told Nelson.

ACTIVISTS WORRIED

Environmentalists and public health advocates warned against scaling back the inventory.

“What we are talking about here is simply information — information that the public has a legal right to,” said Lexi Shultz, legislative director for the Mineral Policy Center. “It gives industries a chance to voluntarily control pollution and gain public good will. And it arms the public with information that they need and can use to improve their quality of life.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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