The law that created the Toxics Release Inventory is one of the more novel pieces of legislation enacted in the past decade. It doesn't mandate any reductions in toxic releases or outlaw particular chemicals. It simply lets the public know what goes on behind factory gates. That information--and the media scrutiny that goes along with it--has been enough to pressure some of the country's largest corporations to make substantial reductions in toxic emissions.
Known as the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, the law was passed by Congress in 1985 in the wake of the devastating 1984 Union Carbide chemical accident in Bhopal, India, which killed more than 3,500 people. Despite heavy lobbying against the legislation by the chemical industry and the Reagan administration, the law passed Congress on a razor-thin vote of 212 to 211. The legislation opened a treasure trove of information that had previously been off-limits to the general public.
The Right to Know Act has come under attack in Congress. During the last session, then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Senator Bennett Johnston, a Louisiana Democrat, sponsored a "reform" bill that would have drastically reduced the number of chemicals covered by the act. Johnston's state is home to several of the country's largest chemical companies.
However, that effort backfired when President Clinton seized on the law as an example of government regulation that works and used it to batter Dole's environmental record during the presidential campaign. Clinton's re-election means that the EPA will likely expand the list of chemicals covered by the Toxics Release Inventory.
Several major industries--including mining, utilities and oil and gas--are exempt from the disclosure requirements. That may change soon, since the EPA is considering a proposal to add those industries to the list of businesses required to report toxic releases. Last fall, the agency also proposed adding a requirement that industries disclose all toxics used in production, not just those released into the environment. If those new regulations are approved later this year, the public will know more about the factory down the road than ever before.