WASHINGTON - The White House pressured the Environmental Protection Agency to soften requirements that companies annually disclose releases of toxic chemicals, congressional auditors say.
In a study scheduled to be released next week, the Government Accountability Office says the changes mean that industry will have to file 22,000 fewer reports each year, reducing an important public monitoring tool on industrial emissions.
The EPA rushed to complete the changes because of "pressure" from the White House Office of Management and Budget to reduce regulatory burdens on industry, the report says. It adds that the White House overstated the cost savings to industry from the changes.
For two decades, businesses have had to disclose to the EPA the amount of toxic chemicals they produce, store, and discharge into the air, water and ground. Communities, watchdog groups, local neighborhoods, and even the IRS have used the information.
Last December, the EPA cut the amount of data needed to be disclosed in the Toxic Release Inventory Report.
Companies were allowed to submit shorter forms if they used less than 5,000 pounds of toxic chemicals or released less than 2,000 pounds.
Previously, detailed information had to be provided in long forms if the amount of chemicals involved was as little as 500 pounds, a threshold that the new rule maintains only for chemicals considered the most dangerous.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement that the GAO report "confirms the serious flaws" in the reporting requirement.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) said the report, which he and Boxer had requested, "makes clear the Bush administration is . . . letting facilities hide critical data about toxic chemicals."
The EPA, in a response within the report, said that it disagreed with the GAO's conclusions and that the rule changes included incentives for industry to cut the quantity of toxic chemicals it uses.
"EPA believes fully that all appropriate and necessary analyses were conducted," wrote Molly O'Neill, the agency's assistant administrator and chief information officer.
The GAO auditors said the change would allow 3,500 facilities to no longer disclose detailed information about released toxic chemicals. It said 22,000, or 25 percent, fewer toxic-release reports would be available to the public.
The EPA estimated that the reporting changes would save industry $6 million annually.
The GAO said that the EPA analysis "masked the disproportionately large impacts" the reporting changes would have on communities and that the EPA estimate of cost savings was based on outdated data from the Office of Management and Budget and overstated the savings by as much as 25 percent.
A dozen states last month filed a lawsuit asking the court to order the EPA to return to the old reporting requirements. Legislation sponsored by Lautenberg would require the same.
The TRI program was enacted in 1986, two years after the release of chemical gas at a chemical plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands.
It emerged in the 1990s as a widely used "community right-to-know" tool.