EPA expands toxics reporting to emphasize equity

By E.A. Crunden, Sean Reilly | 04/30/2021 01:36 PM EDT

EPA is making several changes to a major toxics reporting tool in order to bolster President Biden’s environmental justice goals.

EPA headquarters.

EPA headquarters. Francis Chung/E&E News

EPA is making several changes to a major toxics reporting tool in order to bolster President Biden’s environmental justice goals.

The agency said yesterday that it will take steps through the Toxics Release Inventory to expand chemical reporting requirements, make information more accessible, and crack down on certain high-concern contaminants including ethylene oxide and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

"Every person in the United States has a right to know about what chemicals are released into their communities," said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a statement. "By requiring new and more data on chemical releases from facilities, EPA and its partners will be better equipped to protect the health of every individual, including people of color and low-income communities that are often located near these facilities but have been left out of the conversation for too long."


TRI currently provides information on chemical releases from around 22,000 industrial and federal facilities. The reporting tool helps keep tabs on specific contaminants of concern, especially given their implications for local public health.

Under Biden, EPA is expanding TRI. New search tools include a section offering demographic data on factors like income and race, as well as a Spanish-language version of the inventory. EPA is also touting a component allowing communities to interact with facilities over their emissions.

Mustafa Santiago Ali, a longtime environmental justice advocate and former EPA official, called the changes "a positive step" that will help some of the country’s most vulnerable members stay apprised of contaminants and exposure levels.

"Communities have wanted to always make sure that they had better opportunities to access information," Ali told E&E News. "They can have a bigger understanding of the impacts that are playing out in their communities and the medical conditions associated with that pollution."

PFAS, ethylene oxide

The changes will also give communities more details about some high-profile contaminants, including "forever chemicals," or PFAS.

The PFAS family contains thousands of substances, several of which have been repeatedly deemed carcinogenic. The Biden administration has singled out the chemicals — valued by industry for their nonstick properties — and framed PFAS contamination as an environmental justice issue, with EPA in particular ramping up its scrutiny (Greenwire, Jan. 21).

The agency emphasized in its announcement that new PFAS will continue to be added to the TRI, beyond the three added for 2021. As part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, some PFAS are automatically added to the inventory.

EPA also said the agency anticipates adding PFBS to TRI. That substance was the subject of significant controversy under the Trump administration due to a toxicity assessment the Biden EPA later said was marred by "political interference." Earlier this month, EPA released a new toxicity assessment for PFBS placing greater weight on its health implications (Greenwire, April 8).

Ali said the emphasis on PFAS contamination as an environmental justice issue speaks to the nature of cumulative impacts. The chemicals are in the blood of virtually all people and have contaminated drinking water across the United States. But for communities already suffering from pollution and other environmental issues, the toll can be heightened.

"It brings into the mix the multiple effects that vulnerable communities have to deal with," he said. "I’m glad we’re focusing on this."

In its announcement, EPA also said it will broaden TRI reporting on ethylene oxide, a compound used as a sterilizer and in agriculture that is sometimes emitted by chemical plants.

EPA classifies ethylene oxide as carcinogenic, which has triggered alarm and lawsuits in communities in the Atlanta and Chicago areas that are home to sterilization facilities. The agency signaled yesterday that it intends to close a loophole exempting some businesses that use ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment from reporting their emissions to the TRI.

But while companies that manufacture medical products sterilized with ethylene oxide are largely covered by TRI reporting requirements, those that provide sterilization services on a contract basis may not be, Madeline Beal, senior risk communication adviser with EPA, said in an email this morning.

In yesterday’s release, the agency said that many of those contract facilities are found near communities with environmental justice concerns. Asked for a list of the plants that would now be required to report emissions, Beal said that EPA is developing the plan’s scope and thus cannot "speak to details at this time." More information will be released in the coming months, according to the release.

As to how soon EPA can implement the changes and whether a public notice and comment period will be involved, Beal offered only that the agency is "exploring all options and is working to take action as quickly as possible."

Representatives of the Ethylene Oxide Sterilization Association, a nonprofit group that includes medical device manufacturers and contract sterilizers, did not immediately reply to a request for comment this morning.

Climate concerns

EPA also announced plans to finalize a rule adding natural gas processing facilities to industries covered under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. That law supports state and local efforts around responding to, and keeping apprised of, chemical hazards. EPA noted "millions of people" live within 30 miles of at least one relevant plant.

Natural gas facilities are often under scrutiny for their contributions to climate change, and Ali praised EPA’s emphasis on those sites as a source of additional environmental impacts.

The former EPA official also offered that the agency should consider placing more weight on the intersection of climate change and chemical contamination. That would mean considering not only the current risks posed by exposure but also the ways in which extreme weather events affect contaminants and what that ultimately means for public health.

Given that vulnerable communities often deal with myriad environmental issues, Ali continued, it will become more and more important for EPA to assess the relationship between coinciding factors.

"As we have more extreme rain events, how does that impact these chemical processes?" he asked. "Wildfires, we are talking about extreme, extreme heat. How do these chemicals play in those types of situations? We need to know."