Toxic Chemicals:

EPA's Toxic Release Inventory Is Useful but Can Be Improved

RCED-91-121: Published: Jun 27, 1991. Publicly Released: Jun 27, 1991.

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Pursuant to a legislative requirement, GAO reviewed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) and the states' implementation of the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) Program, focusing on: (1) the availability and accessibility of the inventory to the public; (2) how the public, states, EPA, and other federal agencies used the inventory data; and (3) legislative and administrative options to improve the usefulness of the inventory.

GAO found that: (1) about 6.24 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were reportedly emitted into the air, land, and water or transferred to waste treatment, storage, or disposal locations in 1988; (2) since environmental managers lacked complete, long-term data on toxic pollutants in the air, land, and water, the success of federal environmental programs has been difficult to measure; (3) public availability of the inventory data prompted some companies to make public commitments to meeting corporate pollution reduction goals; (4) environmental and public interest groups extensively use the inventory and the federal and state agencies use the inventory to manage environmental programs; (5) TRI did not include information on emissions from sources other than the manufacturing sector or from manufacturing facilities with fewer than 10 employees, and did not include information on many widely used toxic chemicals; (6) EPA has initiated several public outreach projects to inform the public about toxic pollution; (7) although users of the public database expressed general satisfaction with the system's usefulness, features, and cost, users were not assured of the inventory data's quality, since EPA used its limited inspection resources to identify facilities that failed to report data rather than to examine the quality of data already submitted; (8) at least 10,000 facilities have not submitted emissions reports and many small- to medium-sized facilities remain unaware of their obligation to report; and (9) although various EPA inspection strategies to identify nonreporters were not uniformly effective, EPA was taking enforcement action against nonreporters that submitted the required report after an inspection.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Subsequent to the recommendation, nearly 100 members of Congress (a bipartisan majority of the Senate and 42 House members) signed letters sent to President Clinton im March 1993 asking him to sign an executive order requiring federal agencies to report their toxic emissions as the private sector is required to do under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. President Clinton signed the requested order (Executive Order 12856) on August 3, 1993. The order requires agencies to begin submitting reports starting with their calendar year 1994 releases which are due to EPA by July 1995.

    Matter: To make TRI a more comprehensive and useful picture of the level of toxic chemical emissions nationwide, Congress should amend the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) to require that federal facilities meeting the reporting criteria submit annual reports on their toxic emissions, taking into consideration the national security implications of having facilities report on the emission of some toxic chemicals.

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No legislation has been introduced that would implement this recommendation.

    Matter: To strengthen EPA enforcement of the TRI Program, Congress should amend EPCRA to provide EPA with explicit authority to inspect facilities.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA is expanding information collected under TRI. In November 1994, EPA issued a final rule on chemical expansion that added approximately 300 chemicals to the list of chemicals for which facilities must report TRI data. Further, in June 1996, EPA issued a proposed rule adding industries in the non-manufacturing sector to the TRI reporting process. EPA anticipates issuing the final rule early in FY 1997. EPA also issued a final rule in November 1994 to streamline small source reporting.

    Recommendation: To make TRI more comprehensive and useful, the Administrator, EPA, should review which additional sources of toxic emissions should report and which additional toxic chemicals should be added to the inventory. This review should consider: (1) the volume and type of toxic emissions from nonmanufacturers and from facilities with fewer than 10 employees; (2) emissions of widely used toxic chemicals not currently reported; and (3) the health and environmental effects of these emissions. EPA should establish goals, objectives, and time frames and determine the resources needed to complete this review.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has developed an interim public outreach strategy that: (1) attempts to use pilot projects to evaluate outreach techniques; and (2) expands efforts to improve public awareness and strengthen understanding through training, completing user guides, and issuing a variety of TRI information for national distribution.

    Recommendation: To make the general public more aware and knowledgeable of TRI, the Administrator, EPA, should develop a public outreach strategy that more effectively publicizes the availability of the data. In addition, EPA should clarify its role in interpreting the inventory data for the public.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has taken a number of steps to implement this recommendation. These include: (1) prioritizing TRI data quality in national compliance and enforcement programs and issuing inspection guidance to assess and enforce accurate TRI reporting; (2) developing data quality training for regional and state inspectors; and (3) using technical error notices to educate submitters on errors that can be readily identified by using automated methods. Further, EPA is conducting a data quality survey of selected reporting facilities to assess the quality of TRI data estimates submitted by these facilities. The survey results will provide EPA with an indication of the overall quality of TRI data, provide surveyed facilities with feedback on improving their data, and allow EPA to improve reporting instructions and guidance provided to reporting facilities.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the technical quality of the information in the inventory is sound, the Administrator, EPA, should place greater emphasis on verifying the information submitted by facilities, particularly the emissions estimates. As part of this effort, the agency should expand assistance to states to help them develop their capacities to verify the data.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has issued national inspection guidance that includes a targeting strategy for nonreporters and delivered related training in fiscal year 1994. To identify facilities not meeting TRI reporting requirements, EPA plans to focus resources on four regions actively using its enforcement targeting system.

    Recommendation: Because strong, efficient enforcement is critical to ensure industry's compliance with the inventory program's reporting requirements, the Administrator, EPA, should develop an effective regional inspection strategy to better identify nonreporters and issue national guidance for implementing this strategy.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has not undertaken a comprehensive cost-benefit evaluation of TRI products but: (1) has attempted to use pilot projects and user feedback to evaluate the suitability of various TRI data formats and products for public outreach; (2) is making TRI data available to the public in a variety of formats; and (3) provides user assistance through documents and telecommunications services.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should assess the costs and benefits to both EPA and the public of making the various data formats available to the public.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA issued case backlog reduction guidance to its regions and, as followup, will use compliance monitoring and communication strategies to prioritize enforcement cases and help regions minimize their backlogs.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should develop procedures to reduce the backlog of enforcement cases and clarify EPA headquarters' role in handling such cases.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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