Several states and the federal government have in place various “right-to-know” laws. Based on the idea that the public has a right to know about chemical risks they face, these programs require that private sector entities report chemicals that they release, use, and sell. Some environmentalists suggest that supporting these regulations gives the public enough information to demand lower-risk facilities that pollute less. Although these laws seem straightforward and reasonable, an analysis of one key federal program—the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI)—demonstrates serious flaws.
TRI requires that firms that have 10 or more employees and annually manufacture or process more than 25,000 pounds (or otherwise use 10,000 pounds) of a TRI-listed chemical report the release or transfer of such chemicals. The law currently covers about 650 chemicals, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to add and delete chemicals. Releases include emissions, discharges into bodies of water, releases to land, materials recycled, and disposals into underground injection wells. Transfers include movement of chemicals off site for recycling, incineration, treatment (such as in a water treatment facility), or landfill disposal.