Public health advocates to the chemical industry: Stop hobbling EPA

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.  Allison Tracy is a Chemicals Policy Fellow.

Today, EDF joined with 32 other environmental justice, health and environmental organizations to file comments [PDF] with EPA that strongly support its effort to improve its ability to obtain – and share with the public – robust information about the production, processing and use of chemicals in the U.S.

While the details of EPA’s proposed rule and many of our comments are heavily wonky, the motivation and goals are far from it:  To make sure that EPA, the marketplace and the public have the information they need to guard against harm from dangerous chemicals.  That requires knowing a whole lot more than we do today about what chemicals are in commerce, in what quantities, how they’re used – essential to understanding how we may be exposed.

Robust information is the lifeblood of a sound chemicals management system.  Government needs access to comprehensive, reliable information to inform policy, programmatic and regulatory decisions it must make to carry out its mission.  The market needs access to such information to inform the myriad decisions made every day by producers, sellers and users of chemicals and products and materials made using chemicals.  And researchers, the public and groups that work in the public interest need access if they are to have confidence in, and be able meaningfully to contribute to, decisions and actions taken by government and the private sector.

In an earlier post, we made the point that the chemical industry’s reactions to these modest proposals will be a litmus test for how serious it is in acting on its rhetoric about the need for EPA and the public to have more and better information on chemicals.  With the comment period closing today for EPA’s proposed rule, look here in the coming weeks for our assessment on industry’s comments.

What follows is a summary of our comments, indicating both what we support and what more is needed. 

EPA’s Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Inventory Update Reporting (IUR) rule is one of the very few means by which the federal government can obtain and provide public access to robust information on the identity, production, processing and use of chemicals.  Unfortunately, the IUR has been severely hobbled as a result of provisions in implementing regulations that have constrained the scope and frequency of reporting of chemical information by industry, and have unduly restricted public access to the collected information.

Our comments make clear that EPA faces constraints in its current legal authority and resource capacity that can only be fixed through comprehensive reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  But even as we work and wait for that, we also fully support EPA doing all it can today to improve the information-poor environment in which EPA – and all others who make daily decisions about chemicals – currently operate.

On August 13, 2010, EPA proposed a number of significant modifications to the IUR rule.  Here are the big ones we support, along with further changes essential to EPA’s ability to fulfill its mandate under TSCA:

  • Requiring electronic reporting – essential to improving accuracy, reducing burdens to both EPA and industry, and speeding EPA’s provision of public access to chemical information.
  • Requiring reporting for any chemical the production or import of which exceeds the minimum specified production volume (“reporting threshold”) in any year of the reporting cycle, rather than only a single year in each cycle, as currently required – essential to effectively capture the substantial year-to-year fluctuation in production/import volumes that in past IUR reporting cycles has yielded a very incomplete account of chemicals actually in commerce at a given time.  We believe it is also essential that this change in the reporting trigger be applied in the next reporting cycle taking place in 2011, rather than being postponed until the cycle after the next, as EPA has proposed.
  • Eliminating the 300,000 pounds/year/site threshold for reporting processing and use information – essential to providing EPA and the public with critical information for evaluating the potential for release of and exposure to chemicals in commerce.
  • Eliminating the 25,000 pounds/year/site threshold for reporting under the IUR for certain chemicals for which EPA has cause for concern about their potential hazards, exposures or risks – essential to ensuring that information is available on chemicals that could pose health or environmental concerns at levels of production or import below the threshold that would apply to most chemicals.  We believe, however, that the criteria EPA proposes to use to identify such chemicals need to be expanded to include other chemicals known or suspected of possessing significant hazard, exposure potential or both.
  • Requiring reporting of production or import volume for each year of the reporting cycle – also essential to effectively capture the substantial year-to-year fluctuation in production/import volumes that was missed in past IUR reporting cycles, thereby skewing the picture of how many and which chemicals are actually in commerce at a given time and at what levels of production or import.
  • Replacing the “readily obtainable” standard EPA had applied to the reporting of processing and use information with the more common “known or reasonably ascertainable” standard – essential to eliminating what became a major loophole in the last IUR cycle that severely limited the processing and use information EPA received from industry.
  • Restricting conditions under which submitters can claim information to be Confidential Business Information (CBI), and where such claims are made, requiring upfront substantiation of the claims – essential to reducing abuses of CBI claims and increasing the amount of submitted information that is publicly accessible.
  • Increasing the frequency of reporting from the current 5-year cycle to a shorter cycle – essential to more accurately capturing information on the chemicals actually in commerce at a given time.

EPA also requested comment on some additional possible modifications, several of which we strongly support:

  • Reducing the reporting threshold from the current level of 25,000 pounds/year/site, at least to the previous threshold of 10,000 pounds/year/site or some other level.  We support significantly lowering the threshold, and believe EPA should strongly consider lowering the threshold to 1 metric ton (2,200 pounds), thereby harmonizing its reporting system with that of the European Union under its REACH Regulation.
  • Enhancing the exposure data that EPA obtains from manufacturers and importers to more closely mirror that received for new chemicals under TSCA Section 5, facilitating EPA’s ability to conduct screening-level exposure assessments.
  • Requiring processors to report exposure-relevant information about their own processing and use of chemicals that are reported under the IUR – essential to ensure EPA obtains robust processing and use information, given that manufacturers and importers frequently have only limited access to such information for their chemicals.
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