Environment, Health & Safety

Information has always been the fuel that powers the engine of environmental, health, and safety protection. History shows that when environmental or health problems are made public, the public demands action, and government acts. The establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) was, in part, a reaction to the 1984 chemical incident in Bhopal, India. The creation of the EPA itself was prompted by public outrage over the Love Canal tragedy in Niagara Falls, NY. Environmental right-to-know laws have been one of the great success stories in governmental policy. Public access to environmental information has made a considerable share of the environmental community’s work possible. But rules on access to information, including environmental, health and safety information, are now under drastic assault.

The TRI program, which makes public the types and quantities of toxic chemicals released each year by businesses and industrial facilities, was established under a bold environmental law called the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). The law, passed in 1986, puts the burden of responsibility on the government to actively disseminate TRI information to the public. EPCRA followed the tragic December 1984 accident in Bhopal, India where a Union Carbide facility leaked methyl isocyanate, killing more than 6,000 people and injuring hundreds of thousands of people. Less than a year later, in August 1985, another Union Carbide facility — this time in Institute, West Virginia in the U.S. — had another accident injuring more than 150 community residents. A 500-gallon storage tank leaked a chemical used to make a pesticide into the air causing damage in Institute and three neighboring communities. In response to these “routine” accidents, Congress responded with EPCRA and the TRI program. The TRI has been credited with cutting toxic chemical releases in half and has attracted the attention of the United Nations, European Union, and countries around the globe.

Love Canal provides a particularly dramatic example of how secrecy can harm human health and the environment. Both the City of Niagara Falls and Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation (later Occidental Chemical), the company responsible for the toxic dumping, paid a total of nearly $200 million in damages when a housing development was built atop a toxic waste dump. Had toxic dumping registries been publicly accessible at any time during or after the waste was released, citizens could have learned of the dumping and perhaps prevented the development of that piece of land in the first place. An earlier movement could have begun to ban outright the dumping of such waste and force its cleanup. Without routine public access to information, it often takes a costly incident like Love Canal to force improvements in public protection and social justice.

Ironically, even as the transparency movement gains momentum in the rest of the world, the United States is taking giant steps backwards. Shortsighted policymakers and self-interested industries are working to cut off information, hoping the environmental protection engine will simply sputter to a halt. These attacks are often hidden. The perpetrators rig the debate to label proponents of right to know as soft on security even though the advocates use information to increase safety; power grabbing even though they only seek to empower citizen participation in government; and reactionary even though they urge policies that are more cautious about harming human health than they are about harming corporate interests.

Recent policies with the biggest impact on environment, health & safety concerns

Homeland Security Policies
For more information on Secrecy in the name of security click here.

Data Quality Act and Peer Review Bulletin

For information on recent policies that put politics in control of science click here.

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