The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA)
The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), also known as SARA Title III, was enacted in November 1986. This law provided an infrastructure at the state and local levels to plan for chemical emergencies. Facilities that have spilled hazardous substances, or that store, use, or release certain chemicals are subject to various reporting requirements. All of this information is made publicly available so that interested parties may become informed about potentially dangerous chemicals in their community. Common EPCRA topics include: emergency planning; hazardous chemical inventory reporting; public access to chemical information; toxic chemical release reporting and the Form R; and the toxics release inventory (TRI) database.
The Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA, or SARA Title III) is one of the most far reaching in a series of laws passed in the 1980s to provide citizens with substantial new information on chemical hazards. The law represents a rare victory for citizens and the environment. A key provision, the Toxics Release Inventory, passed the House of Representatives by a one vote margin on December 10, 1985. Three basic factors helped pass EPCRA:
- The grassroots movement for local workplace and community right-to-know laws;
- The lack of useful information on facilities' toxic waste generation;
- The December 1984 Bhopal tragedy, in which thousands of people were poisoned, many fatally, by the sudden release of toxic gas from an Indian pesticide factory.
EPCRA has three major functions:
- Emergency Notification and Planning provisions require companies to disclose potential toxic hazards and ensure that local communities to plan for chemical emergencies;
- Community Right-To-Know provides the public with access to critical information about toxic chemical inventories held by businesses in the community;
- The Toxics Release Inventory requires certain large manufacturing facilities to report routine releases of some 320 listed toxic chemicals to the public and EPA.
The Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) establishes the first on-line, publicly accessible computer database ever mandated by federal law for dissemination of government information. The TRI data must be augmented by currently undisclosed information on chemical use and production to track pollution prevention.
The TRI data are:
- publicly accessible;
- chemical specific;
- designed for data management.
Citizens are beginning to seek equivalent data worldwide to address the international aspects of chemical contamination.
Community right-to-know brings needed attention to critical toxic pollution problems and increases citizens' voice in environmental policy. The law provides the public with specific chemical emissions data from industrial neighbors and can be used to obtain information on the risk of sudden chemical releases. The law does not, however, provide citizens a way to prevent chemical risks. Citizens must combine right-to-know information with other - tools. - These tools have been both traditional and innovative. Citizens are using regulatory programs, direct negotiation, judicial redress, public opinion, and other means to reduce the use of toxic materials and spotlight potential chemical accidents.
Citizen groups are:
- Educating the public and policy-makers about toxic pollution problems and ideas for solutions by producing scores of reports;
- Negotiating directly with industry to change industrial practices, including use of on-site inspections, `good neighbor' agreements and community tracking committees;
- Compelling proper enforcement of existing regulations and suing to bolster compliance;
- Advocating pollution prevention planning in state and federal toxics use reduction laws;
- Illustrating the potential off-site consequences of sudden chemical releases; and
- Addressing toxic hazards through local and state voter initiative petitions and laws.
Right-to-know broadens public participation in environmental decision making by transferring information from previously inaccessible corporate files to ordinary citizens. The information helps community groups voice their concerns and expectations of U.S. companies and to link local industrial activities to global environmental issues.
As people become more knowledgeable and better organized, they tend to become more proactive. Although relatively few citizens exercise their right-to-know as individuals, environmental and public interest groups use the law extensively. Some individuals may be deterred by the lack of specific - tools - to reduce toxic hazards, by the absence of politically effective local organizations, by barriers to data access, or by lack of knowledge and awareness. At the same time, however, many citizens do not actively - use - TRI data, but benefit from the data through print or broadcast media. Beyond the right-to-know, citizens need more complete information, better data access, improved technical expertise and basic legal assistance. Simple regulatory programs could reduce chemical hazards, including a program to phase-out major uses of certain chemicals, such as chlorinated solvents, lead, asbestos and ozone-depleting CFCs. Citizens need the right to inspect facilities and to take soil or water samples as part of an effective - right-to-act - for public health and environmental protection. The current law excludes many significant chemicals and facilities, and overlooks an estimated 95 percent of all toxic releases. Missing too are data on chemical use and production that are necessary to measure pollution prevention progress and to ensure that companies are not shifting risks between workers, consumers, communities and the general environment. Proposed federal right-to-know more legislation would address these inadequacies. All too often, accident prevention remains stalled. Nearly a decade after the tragic Bhopal disaster, activists are just beginning to pry information on chemical hazards out of reluctant industries. Basic information on the potential harm of chemical accidents - including industry's own worst-case release scenarios - is not yet routinely made public. If this information were released, citizens could reinvigorate emergency planning.