Information about Industry Emissions
- Toxic Release Inventory
- Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers
“Armed with toxic release inventory data, communities have more power to hold companies accountable and make informed decisions about how toxic chemicals are to be managed. The data often spurs companies to focus on their chemical management practices since they are being measured and made public.”
Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTR) and Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) are ways of measuring the emissions of some industrial pollutants into the environment. They[who?] then make this information available to the public.
The United States Toxic Release Inventory
The gas explosion at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhophal, India, in 1984, which killed thousands and injured hundreds of thousands of people, catalyzed the demand for community right to know about industrial facilities in the U.S. This led to the passing of the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. The act was the result of community demand for information about the types and amounts of chemicals stored within their region and the detailed company plans to prevent accidents. The Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) was part of the package.
The U.S. Toxic Release Inventory requires companies to report releases to the environment of more than 650 chemicals designated as toxic. It is a mandatory requirement. Companies must report releases to air, water, and land, as well as offsite transfers to sewage plants, recyclers, incinerators, deep well injection, and landfill for recycling or disposal. Since 1991 companies also have to report what types of pollution prevention techniques they are using to reduce emissions.
The information has to be filed each year and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency actively disseminates this to the public. The public has access via the internet, CD-ROMs, diskettes, a telephone helpline, or by paper reports. The government gives data about all the TRI reports, as well as a search service, whereby a citizen can type in the name of a company that they want information on. It also provides health information for all the chemicals that must be reported on. All of this information is free.
How Is the Toxic Release Inventory Information Used?
“[The U.S. Right to Know law] has provided the public with the information we need to protect ourselves.”
Communities use TRI data to begin dialogues with local facilities and to encourage them to reduce their emissions, develop pollution prevention plans, and improve safety measures.
- After an analysis of 1987 TRI data revealed that an IBM company in the Silicon Valley area discharged the largest quantities of ozone-depleting CFCs in California, a public interest group organized a campaign to reduce those emissions. Within months, senior management at IBM had pledged to completely eliminate the use of CFCs in their products and processes at the plant by 1993.
- The group, Citizens for a Better Environment, released a report entitled “Know Your Local Polluter.” It profiled the state’s top 40 toxic polluters. In addition to TRI data, the report provided other information, such as the companies’ compliance histories; maps of major streets, schools, healthcare facilities, and water bodies in the area; information about local populations; and contact information.
• Some states use TRI data to support their pollution prevention programs and toxic use reduction plans, with clear goals and timelines.
• Regulators use the data to set permit limits, measure compliance with those limits and target facilities for enforcement activities
- It enables industries to identify pollution prevention opportunities, set goals for emissions reductions, and demonstrate their commitment to and progress in reducing emissions. When the U.S. TRI first initiated its reporting, industry was concerned that the public would misunderstand the data and they would misuse it. In reality, the public nature of the data has encouraged companies to improve their material use. A few years after the law took effect, a Dow Chemical executive stated that “mandatory disclosure has done more than all other legislation put together in getting companies to voluntarily reduce emissions.”
- Increasingly, TRI data are being used in financial decision-making. Investment analysts use TRI data to provide recommendations to clients seeking to make environmentally sound investments. Insurance companies look to TRI data as one indication of potential environmental liabilities.
Weaknesses of the Toxic Release Inventory
- The information is estimated data. Reports are annual estimates and companies are not required to monitor releases. Data are not independently verified except for limited number of inspections
- Compliance problems. Some facilities are failing to comply or are submitting only partial data.
- Emissions data only. There is no material accounting within the TRI therefore no data on toxic transfers to products. There is no way to know if a reduction in emissions resulted from less manufacturing.
- The TRI does not apply to nonindustrial sectors (chemical users such as dry cleaners, etc.) and only covers a small amount of chemicals. It is estimated that the TRI covers only 10% of all emissions in total.
For more information on the Community Right to Know legislation and how groups are using the data, visit:
- The U.S. Environmental Protection website on Community Right to Know
- The Environmental Defence Fund in the U.S. has released a comprehensive web page, which details all the TRI data available by zipcode. The resource also gives information about each chemical’s toxicity, regulation, use in other regions, rankings of company names, and tips on how to lobby for better pollution prevention.
- Right to Know Net is an online resource use for the public on TRI and related information such as the newsletter of the Working Group on Right to Know.
- The chemical industry continues to mount vigorous campaigns in Congress and the states to roll back right to know provisions. Click here for more information.
- The state of New Jersey publishes free online Right to Know Hazardous Substance Fact Sheets. Visit the website.
Other Countries’ Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers
Several national and regional governments have developed systems to collect and disseminate data on environmental releases and transfers of toxic chemicals from industrial facilties. More Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTRs) are under way, stimulated by the recommendations of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro that affirmed the right of communities and workers to know about toxic chemicals and the importance of chemical inventories to meet that right to know. International bodies, environmental groups, industrial firms, and associations, and other nongovernmental organizations are involved in developing these systems.
In a series of workshops, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) established guidelines for PRTRs. These include:
- Reporting on individual chemicals
- by individual industrial facilities
- on all releases and transfers
- to all environmental media (air, water, land)
- with consistently structured data
- entered into a computer database, and
- actively disseminated to the public
- with limited data withheld as trade secrets,
- with the aim to improve environmental quality and promote cleaner technology.
Does Your Country Have a Pollutant Release and Transfer Register?
Click here to see the state of the world’s PRTRs. If your country does not have a PRTR, lobby your government to implement one.
The US Environmental Protection Agency has created an online tool (ECHO) to provide a readily accessible public inventory of companies' compliance with environmental laws. For the first time, people can find historical compliance profiles with respect to clean air, clean water and hazardous waste laws for some 800,000 facilities. Visit: http://www.epa-echo.gov/echo/
Public Access to Information and the Right to Know. Download fact sheet (.pdf)