Power to the People
- By Elana Varon
- Mar 29, 1998
A chain-link gate and a guard's station are all that is left today of the W.R. Grace Co. battery separator plant in Acton, Mass. Beyond the perimeter, where the fence once stood and a driveway now leads nowhere, looms a five-acre concrete mound in which is buried poisonous chemical refuse from one of the worst toxic-waste sites in the state. Instruments now pepper the mound, checking for escaping toxins.
"It's an incredible monument to the folly of man," Bob Eisengrein said evenly, leaning back on the couch in his comfortably furnished den, less than a mile from the plant. The room is bright, even on a cloudy February morning. A picture window gives way to a wooded yard like many others in this quiet, 265-year-old village next to historic Concord, Mass.
For Eisengrein, 77, the concrete mound at the W.R. Grace plant site is a stark reminder of what it takes to convince a major corporation to clean up its act: information. Eisengrein and the local activist group, Acton Citizens for Environmental Safety, which he joined in 1982 when he moved to town, helped force Grace to clean up its land over nearly two decades. The environmental group was successful by pushing for the facts about what the company was discharging into the environment, the risks the toxins posed to neighboring residents and the best clean-up solutions.
Fearing that they could be surprised by another pollution disaster, residents of Acton (population 17,500) wanted information about other manufacturing companies in town. But this time, the environmental group found it much easier to collect that information, thanks to a database sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, which cataloged large discharges of hundreds of potentially toxic chemicals by some 20,000 companies nationwide. The database, called the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), was ordered to be assembled by Congress in 1986— two years after a toxic gas cloud leaked from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, killing about 2,500 people. During a period when most electronic data was locked inside mainframes and required expert programmers to uncover it, the TRI opened the data up to anyone who knew how to operate a modem and a PC.
Eisengrein knew what to do, having introduced computers into Kingsbury Corp., a Keene, N.H., machine tool company where he worked as an electrical engineer. Tapping into the TRI, Eisengrein compiled a report of the emissions from 10 companies in Acton and surrounding towns. Not many people read it, Eisengrein admitted, but the report got him meetings with local corporate executives, and it put them on notice that residents were watching. "Looking over their shoulders makes them nervous," Eisengrein said. Since he discovered the database, he has launched a second career mining the information for other communities.
Eisengrein's story is typical of how individuals, community groups and national environmental organizations have used the TRI database to press polluters to stop using toxic chemicals and to needle public officials to set more environmentally conscious policies. Local activists, corporate executives and government regulators, frequently at odds in the debate over pollution, agree that the TRI has radically changed how they deal with the problem.
"If you were a facility manager 10 years ago, you would have some reasonable expectation that if you [met] your permit requirements, you would be left alone," said Ron Outen, who developed the idea for the TRI when he was an aide to then-Sen. Robert Stafford (R-Vt.) in the mid-1980s. Today, said Outen, who is now vice president of an environmental policy consulting firm in Arlington, Va., complying with environmental permits "has become a minimum expectation of performance" that doesn't "give you any sort of defense against a community that looks at the numbers and says you're too high."
Reducing Toxic Waste
In all, according to the EPA, the amount of pollution reported by companies covered in the database has fallen 46 percent since 1987, which was the first year the EPA collected TRI information. Since then, the agency has periodically added companies, government facilities and chemicals to the database. Today the TRI covers more than 31,000 facilities emitting 643 industrial chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems.
The TRI data also has made its presence felt on Wall Street. James Hamilton, an assistant professor at Duke University in North Carolina, found that the stock prices of companies that reported high emissions dropped measurably on the day TRI data was first released. In a subsequent study, Hamilton showed that pressure from communities and investors influenced firms to cut their pollution. Seeing how the public and corporations responded to the TRI inspired the EPA to launch its first voluntary pollution-
prevention program in 1991. The 1,300 participants in the program agreed to cut emissions of 17 TRI-listed chemicals by 33 percent in a year and 50 percent in four years from what they had reported in 1988. The companies, including such major corporations as General Electric, BASF Corp. and International Paper Co., surpassed this goal a year early.
"People for the first time had a true understanding of the magnitude of the problems," said John Chelen, executive director of the Unison Institute, which publishes an enhanced version of the TRI and trains members of the public how to use it. "It has provided the right framework to make data available for other programs as well, and [it has] shown [the EPA how to]...rethink the way to use the information."
Environmentalists were quick to see the benefits of being able to retrieve TRI data online, first through dial-up bulletin boards and later on the Internet. "Back then, it was a clunky method, but nonetheless it was relatively easy to log on, as opposed to driving to different offices of state agencies" to root through paper files, said Antonio Diaz, who founded a citizens group in Austin, Texas, called People Organized in Defense of Earth and its Resources (PODER), which has worked to remove environmental hazards from the city's low-income neighborhoods.
Austin-based activists have used TRI reports since 1992 to challenge local zoning decisions and to push for pollution controls in the city's factories. Susana Almanza, the executive director of PODER, said that by looking at the TRI data and local land-use patterns, residents of these largely black and Latino neighborhoods on the eastern side of town realized that they were "subject to a lot of hazardous facilities."
A city land-use study completed last year confirmed the TRI findings. Late last year the Austin City Council approved a special zoning regulation that will provide neighborhood residents with the opportunity to comment on new development in the area.
TRI data and pollution prevention can be a matter of simple economics, as Dick Hatfield found out. Hatfield is the environmental manager for Haartz Corp., a 300-employee firm in Acton that makes coated fabrics used in automobiles, including 90 percent of the tops for U.S.-made convertibles. According to Massachusetts state records, in the manufacturing process, Haartz uses some 800,000 pounds a year of methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), a sweet- and strong-smelling solvent that can cause dizziness, nausea or unconsciousness when inhaled and can irritate the eyes, nose and throat of anyone coming in contact with it.
Hatfield is in charge of controlling emissions from the plant— a problem he takes seriously because, he said, "I live in Acton." Also, years ago people noticed the sweet odors coming from the 260,000-square-foot factory, which is just across the street from Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, where 1,323 students attend classes. "You couldn't ask for a tougher location,'' he said.
Around the time Haartz was preparing its first TRI report, Hatfield was installing a new emissions-control system to capture wasted MEK and recycle it. The company was taking the step partly because of neighbors' complaints and partly to comply with new state regulations. According to Acton Board of Health director Doug Halley, periodic tests of Haartz's emissions show that the company's discharges do not pose any health risks.
The TRI data showed the firm that it was on the right track. Reporting the data "created a greater sense of awareness" that emissions represented wasted raw materials, Hatfield said. Reducing them has captured about $200,000 annually for the privately held firm, which logged $100 million in sales last year. Even though the company has earned "double-digit sales growth'' in the past five years, Hatfield said, "our emissions have stayed pretty flat.''
Haartz is one of the largest users of MEK in Massachusetts, and having toured the plant with Hatfield over the years, Eisengrein wondered whether other factories were taking similar steps to reduce toxic emissions. Three years ago he turned again to the TRI to find firms in the state that used MEK, and he cross-referenced the TRI information with a state database that reports how much of the substance is used by companies and whether they recycle their wastes.
The result was a proposal last December to Rick Reibstein, director of policy and outreach with the Office of Technical Assistance, part of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, which helps companies prevent pollution. Eisengrein suggested the state hold a workshop at which MEK users could learn from other companies how to reclaim their emissions. "If they worked together, [recycling] could spread,'' Eisengrein offered, and pollution would decline.
Reibstein said he likes the idea. "What Bob is saying, I think, is [that] there are industries that have done something good, and I think they'd be willing to share this information," he said.
Web Access for the TRI
Persistent controversies, however, continue to dog the TRI, including how much data has to be reported by polluters and whether the EPA can make the database more user-friendly.
For more than four years the EPA has been studying whether it should add so-called use data to the TRI, which would, supporters argue, point out how much of the chemicals that companies use end up as waste in their emissions and would help in pollution prevention.
Corporations are resisting the move on the grounds that they would be forced to reveal trade secrets. A bill sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) that is pending in the House of Representatives would mandate use reporting and offer firms easier filing methods and trade-secret protection in return.
Meanwhile, the EPA has put a limited version of the current TRI database on the World Wide Web, allowing users to search by company, city, state, ZIP code, industry or chemical name. The site (www.epa.gov/
enviro) does not provide the number-crunching tools available to users who buy the database on CD-ROM from the EPA or who register with the National Library of Medicine's fee-based Toxicology Data Network, which has published the TRI database for the EPA since its inception.
While NLM reports that it is working on ways to make its system easier for computer novices to use, Janette Peterson, who runs the TRI information management branch at the EPA, said her agency plans to offer the most popular features of the NLM site for free by September.
The Web version of the TRI is part of the EPA's new EnviroFacts program, which is a one-stop library for environmental data that is intended eventually to provide online public access to much of the information that the EPA collects. Individuals could then combine data on pollution, corporate compliance and environmental permits collected under numerous laws for a more complete view of environmental conditions in a state, town, neighborhood or factory site.
"Without TRI, there probably wouldn't be an EnviroFacts," said Steve Newburg-Rinn, who ran the TRI program for eight years before becoming a senior adviser in the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics.
Eisengrein thinks more people could take advantage of online databases if it were easy to draw information from multiple sources. "You can't have to be computer-literate," he said. "I think the standard reports the EPA and the state put out are a beginning."
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Hardware: Sun Microsystems Inc. workstation for application development; local-area network for data entry and validation consisting of 179 PCs from Uninet and AST and eight servers from Compaq Computer Corp.
Software: Novell Inc. NetWare 3.12; dBase database software; data analysis application from Sycom Inc.