Time for a 'Right-to-Know' About Government Polluters

Since 1987, thousands of American companies have been legally required to submit annual reports of their chemical releases to the air, land and water. These reports are mandated under the popular and quite successful 'right-to-know' program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, authorized by the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-know Act (EPCRA) of 1986. Environmental activist groups and journalists routinely use this information'which is available on the web'when reporting on (or bashing) those 'corporate polluters' that many people love to hate.

But there are some gaping holes in this program, which is approaching its second decade of existence. Not surprisingly, the exemptions are exclusively for the government and its close allies, namely, municipal sewage systems, the highly socialized farming industry and the government-regulated energy business.

There seems to be a pattern, not to mention a conflict of interest. EPA and its political supporters force private industry to report embarrassing right-to-know information each year. Then they proceed to flaunt those reports in public, denouncing the actions of 'reckless' corporations as they demand more restrictions. On top of the tens of billions spent each year for environmental compliance, corporate Americans can now expect to face six-figure fines or prison sentences for running their businesses before completing voluminous permit applications, for discharging air or water with chemical levels a few parts per million above arbitrary limits, or for failing to properly incriminate themselves on the latter.

Meanwhile, similar or worse behavior from the public sector is allowed to proceed in secrecy, and in many cases gets supported by public tax dollars. The current state of affairs begs the question: Are EPA and its green allies more anti-pollution or anti-industry? But even more offensive than the gross double-standards are the staggering amounts of unreported pollution spewed out from these stealth sources. The groups exempted from reporting happen to be some of the worst polluters in the country.

Power plants emit millions of tons of particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and smog-causing volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides each year. EPA collectively attributes these emissions to thousands of premature deaths and many more cases of respiratory problems annually in the U.S. While the agency has used its broad powers to more than double the list of reportable chemicals from 320 initially to about 650 today, these major pollutants are all somehow exempt from RTK reporting.

EPA figures that combined storm-and-sanitary sewers (found in older cities) annually discharge 850 billion gallons of untreated sewage and storm water'equivalent to 13 days of flow from Niagara Falls . Dedicated sanitary sewer lines'full of toilet water, ground-up food, and everything else flushed down the drain'overflow another 23,000 to 75,000 times each year; due to poor reporting, EPA isn't sure what the real number is. That torrent of filth leads to thousands of U.S. beach closings and ruined vacations, and somewhere around 500,000 to one million illnesses each year, as EPA quietly estimates. EPA figures that 'Americans take a total of 910 million trips to coastal areas each year and spend about $44 billion at those beach locations,' despite the frequent problems.

Farm pollution is probably the most serious legitimate environmental problem facing America today (notwithstanding many illegitimate scare topics advanced by environmentalists). The EPA's biennial National Water Quality Inventory cites farming as causing more miles of river pollution and more acres of lake contamination than all other industry combined. According to the U.S. Geological Survey and state agencies, runoff from agricultural fertilizers and manure are the leading causes of large 'dead' zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay , and create problems in nearly every state from the Florida Everglades to central California . Polluted groundwater and runoff from farming is also responsible for scores of fish kills, including some spectacular displays of millions of rotting carcasses. Thousands of drinking water wells are contaminated with nitrates from fertilizers, often at dangerously high levels.

So these issues of government-related pollution are not a futuristic doomsday theory like global warming'which receives far more media attention. These are real issues that affect millions of Americans right now. But with liberals obsessed with 'corporate' pollution and conservatives hostile to green topics, government polluters have gotten a free pass.

Since environmental topics tend to be high on emotion and low on principle, a few basic points need to be stated. If an industrialist or farmer wants to ruin his land with piles of toxic waste, that is (or should be) solely their business. But once these parties start discharging their mess onto other people's land (as both groups often do) causing measurable harm, then they are reducing the value of neighboring property and may be adversely affecting public health. In this instance, the government has a valid cause to step in.

And RTK reporting is a very useful tool in protecting the property values and health of those who live downwind or downstream from polluters. EPA has called RTK reporting under the EPCRA law 'one of the most powerful forces in empowering the Federal government, state governments, industry, environmental groups, and the general public, to fully participate in an informed dialogue about the environmental impacts of toxic chemicals in the United States .' Environmental groups also rave about this program.

Under the 1986 EPCRA law, a separate 'toxic release inventory' report is required for any of the now roughly 650 listed chemicals that an industry 'uses' in a quantity of at least five tons or 'processes or manufactures' of at least 12.5 tons; a few chemicals like lead, mercury and dioxin have much lower reporting thresholds. These public reports, which are five pages per chemical, are required even if a company'due to well run operations or the installation of expensive pollution controls'has no actual releases at all.

Leaving the worst for last, let's go back to power plants, and consider their level of government control. At American power companies, various state and federal agencies have final authority over everything from initial site location to types of technology and fuels selected to the complex formulas that determine rate pricing'and that's just for the 'private' companies. The nation's largest power supplier'with 59 generating units fired by mega-polluting coal and another 79 that burn oil or natural gas'is the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is owned and operated by the federal government. Overall, the government position appears to be: we're in control, that's all the public needs to know.

As a result, about 99 percent of power plant emissions are exempt from RTK reporting. Although the EPA has required electric utilities to report on trace impurities like lead, mercury, and various acid vapors, the vast majority of pollutants that cause widespread smog and haze problems'affecting millions of urban citizens and visitors to national parks'are left out. Those omitted emissions'combustion byproducts such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter'are most definitely 'toxic,' which is the criteria for RTK listing, since EPA claims these chemicals are killing people by the thousands. While power plants must comply with many other eco-standards, reports on annual emission levels are buried in disperse regulatory archives, virtually inaccessible to the general public. This was also a leading complaint against industrial pollution before the RTK law.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation had over 24,800 days of beach closings and advisories against swimming during 2004, as reported on surveys of beach operators. The leading cause of U.S. beach closings, according to NRDC and EPA, is pollution stemming from mismanagement of sewage handling systems and urban storm water runoff. Both waste streams carry pollutants like heavy metals, gasoline, and nitrates that already appear on EPA's list of RTK chemicals, and many other nasties that should be included like disease-causing bacteria and oxygen depleting chemicals.

Sewage treatment plants and storm water collection systems are almost always run by local governments, with partial funding and sporadic oversight typically kicked in from the state and federal level. But EPA's role of independent oversight is compromised by the fact that they have worked to funnel over $100 billion (adjusted for inflation) in federal grant money to help reckless municipalities clean up after their own neglect. So local failures have become federal failures, which result in gentle understanding and excuses. On the rare event that EPA does talk about sewage dumping, their official terms are passive ones like 'blending' and 'overflow.' Aggressive descriptions such as 'reckless' and 'dumping' are reserved strictly for industrial discharges.

Farm pollution is a profound mess due to decades of political pandering to the farm lobby and the refusal by many farmers to take responsibility for their actions. The main issues begin with the roughly 20 million tons of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium fertilizer injected and sprayed onto the ground each year. By U.S. Department of Agriculture and many other estimates, around one-half or more of those chemicals will bypass their targeted crops and head straight to the nearest ditch or groundwater table, volatilize to the air, or accumulate in the soil. Also important are the 1.4 billion tons of livestock manure produced each year, which is 130 times the amount of human waste generated annually in the U.S. Added to that each year are about 1.1 billion tons of eroded sediment from exposed cropland.

These all leave their mark on nature. Waters loaded with too much nutrients experience excessive weed growth and algae blooms. As the algae decay, oxygen gets depleted from the water, suffocating fish. Bacteria and other disease carrying organisms in animal manure cause illness and sometimes death when contacted from swimming or consumed from tap water. Sediment from erosion smothers aquatic plant life along with shellfish beds and fish eggs. Fertilizers also typically contain nitrates and ammonia, as well as micronutrients zinc, manganese, and copper, which are all on the RTK list; these chemicals are toxic to fish and humans when at elevated levels. EPA data show that pesticides are the least significant source of farm pollution, so these over-hyped chemicals will not receive further attention in this article.

The problem isn't the vast quantities of fertilizer and manure used and soil eroded, but the government's refusal to set any objective limits on the noxious swill that cascades off these materials any time it rains. Instead, the EPA, the USDA and the farming industry all prefer no standards at all (as in most cases), or voluntary guidelines and written reports about internal farming practices that are generally not available to the public and impossible to enforce.

The EPA's most recent biennial inventory of water quality cited farming as causing nearly 129,000 miles of river pollution and 3.2 million acres of lake contamination, based on state data collected in 2000. (EPA is a year behind its normal schedule for issuing the 2002 inventory.) In comparison, all industrial point sources together caused less than 16,000 miles of river pollution (thus not ranking among the top 20 pollution sources), and 466,000 acres of lake contamination. These figures are all for 'impairment,' which is a pollution level so high that it precludes one or more public uses like drinking, swimming, or fish consumption.

The trend of farm pollution dwarfing industrial pollution of rivers and lakes has been reported by EPA for many years. This is despite rather lenient standards on farm pollutants like nitrates, bacteria and oxygen levels compared to the very strict limits on industrial pollutants like mercury and PCBs, which EPA fails to mention.

The once bountiful Chesapeake Bay is now struggling from nutrient overloads, despite over 20 years of state and federal efforts to fix the problems. During the summer, the Bay Program's website notes, "dissolved oxygen levels can become dangerously low in about half of the Bay's deeper waters'critical habitat for some Bay fish and shellfish species." As of 2002, agriculture was the leading source of the Chesapeake 's main problem of nutrient pollution, contributing 41% of the nitrogen loading and 47% of the phosphorous inputs. In comparison, sewage treatment plants and all industrial sources contributed 21% of nitrogen and 22% of phosphorous loads into the Bay (other sources were forests, urban runoff and septic tanks).

The Mississippi River 'with its enormous watershed covering two-fifths of the lower 48 states'is also loaded with farm pollution that is eventually dumped into the Gulf of Mexico . In many recent years the size of the Gulf's dead zone is larger than the state of New Jersey . According to extensive monitoring and analyses by the USGS, the main problem is excessive nitrogen that comes primarily from agriculture, which delivers 755,000 tons per year of it at the Mississippi 's outlet to the Gulf. That amount dwarfs all other natural and man-made sources, which combined for 425,000 tons per year of the pollutant.

On the topic of fish kills, see the NRDC report ' America 's Animal Factories,' which unfortunately focuses too much on the 'factory' feedlots, the main offense of which seems to be earning too much profit. One of the more amusing headlines cited was "Spill's Toll is Limited by Earlier Fish Kill," based on a discharge of almost half a million gallons of hog manure in Iowa .

EPA has done even less on the topic of agricultural air pollution. Based on the limited data available, it is known that significant amounts of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane and other harmful gases are emitted from the rotting piles of animal waste that accompany many livestock operations. It is also known that large quantities of particulate matter are discharged into the air from the 840 million tons per year of wind erosion at farms. But in the 35 years since the Clean Air Act was passed, EPA has done virtually nothing to regulate or even report on this.

Prior to the 2004 election, when questioned about the environmental loopholes for farming, President Bush told Pollution Engineering magazine: 'To help States clean up non-point source pollution, I signed a record $40 billion in conservation funding into law as part of the 2002 Farm Bill.'

Regulators and lawmakers like to make excuses for farm pollution, citing technical jargon about the alleged difficulties in reducing 'non-point' pollution (that is, pollution without a discharge pipe). But landfills, Superfund sites and ground soaked from leaking fuel storage tanks are also classic non-point sources. That flimsy excuse never stopped Congress and EPA from targeting those for infinitely more expensive cleanups.

People should also realize that private sector food processors and fertilizer manufacturers have always been required to file right-to-know reports under this same EPCRA law of 1986. So the EPA and the rest of Washington have no special compassion for the food supply.

To understand the government's passion for making excuses for farm pollution, one needs to realize the major role that Washington has in agribusiness (and has had for over 90 years). The U.S. Department of Agriculture alone has spent over $1.1 trillion (current dollars) just since 1990'quite a remarkable sum considering that many farm programs were sold to the public decades ago as 'temporary' and 'emergency' relief measures. And the agency has over 110,000 staffers to implement its complex web of programs for subsidized education, cheap loans and insurance, direct price supports for many crops, indirect farm welfare via food stamps and many other services. That hefty USDA price tag doesn't include the ethanol mandates, generous property tax breaks, special exemptions to utilize child labor and immigrants, or the cut-rate water prices granted to agribusiness.

Like no other group, the farming industry is dominated by the District of Columbia 's central planners. With so much federal prestige riding on the pristine image of the 'family farmer,' no one in Washington wants to publicize embarrassing data on agricultural (and government) neglect'all the more reason for public disclosure.

The addition of electric utilities, municipal sewage systems and socialized farming to the ranks of those required to file annual right-to-know emission reports is the least that should be required of these major polluters. And if Washington refuses to do this, states and counties should step in and take the lead.

There are two main benefits to this proposal, in debatable order of importance. First of all, shining a spotlight on government polluters will help dispel the persistent myth that all pollution comes from industry. This lie, promoted by many activists and public officials, has been used to bully people in the private sector into a state of submission, where very few will dare speak out for their own rights in fear of bad press coverage and government retribution.

Secondly, thanks to the pressures of public disclosure, industrial releases fell by nearly 50 percent in the first ten years of right-to-know reporting. Similar results could probably be achieved for government polluters, if they are ever led out of the closet. With thousand of public beaches too foul to swim in, moderate to severe levels of air pollution in many cities and the widespread impacts of farm pollution, there is much room for improvement.

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S.E. Seachman's picture
Columns on STR: 3

Mr. Seachman is an engineer and freelance writer.