Speaking of boneheaded moves by federal authorities who are supposed to protect public health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday unveiled a controversial final rule that eases reporting requirements for companies under the Toxic Release Inventory program.

The changes will allow industrial polluters to withhold information on toxic releases -- and will make it harder for citizens to access information about pollution in their communities.

"EPA's actions take us back to the dark ages when the public knew nothing about toxic releases and when companies couldn't be held accountable for pollution that threatened public health," U.S. PIRG staff attorney Alex Fidis said in a news release. "EPA is substituting a don't ask, don't tell policy for a program that works to protect public health and the environment."

The new rule will allow companies to use or release four to 10 times more toxic chemicals before they are required to submit a report. It will also allow companies to withhold information about the use and production of dangerous persistent bioaccumulative toxics. EPA had planned to change the frequency of reports from once a year to once every two years but abandoned the proposal in response to public outcry.

When EPA announced the planned changes to TRI, it sparked opposition from various quarters, according to a recent report from OMB Watch, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes open government. Titled "Against the Public's Will," OMB's report on the response to EPA's proposed TRI changes documented opposition to the plans from 23 state governments and more than 120,000 average citizens, 60 members of Congress, 30 public health organizations, 40 labor organizations, and 200 environmental and public-interest groups.

In May 2005, the House of Representatives voted to block EPA from implementing the TRI rollbacks, but the Senate was unable to consider a similar measure before EPA finalized the changes.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThe TRI program was established in 1988 as a response to the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, where a Union Carbide plant accidentally released 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate into the environment, killing more than 3,000 people outright and sickening at least 150,000 others. Shortly after the Bhopal incident, there was a serious chemical release at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in West Virginia, leading to the hospitalization of six workers and 135 local residents. Union Carbide is now owned by Dow Chemical, which has denied liability for the incident.

The Union Carbide disasters spurred U.S. public-interest and environmental organizations to demand information on toxic chemicals being released into communities. Their demands led Congress to pass the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, which created the TRI reporting program.

For details on toxic chemicals being released into your community, visit the EPA's TRI Explorer Web page.