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The Leading Edge of Environmental Transparency

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I spent the better part of the past week in D.C. at two events: the annual training conference on the national Toxics Release Inventory hosted by the EPA, the Environmental Council on the States and the World Resources Institute, and a similar conference organized by the Commission on Environmental Cooperation, the trilateral North American organization formed out of the environmental side agreement to NAFTA.

I was there to present the report we co-authored last year with Environment America Research & Policy Center,Wasting Our Waterways, which documented toxic releases to America’s rivers and streams. 

I’ll post links to the presentations soon, but I wanted to quickly note a few take-aways:

  • The sense of possibility that has been building around the movement for government spending transparency (see our most recent report on the subject) seems to also be present in the movement for environmental transparency. There seems to have been a sea change in EPA’s attitude toward environmental information: one that now prioritizes getting data out to the public as quickly as possible and providing multiple tools to help users take advantage of that information. There are still too many gaps in information and too many places where the system falls down, but things are on the upswing.
  • There were several important reminders from citizen activists and academics that providing information isn’t enough – to achieve real environmental protection, we need to enforce our environmental laws. Anne Rolfes from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, for example, spoke of her home state’s unwillingness to properly enforce environmental laws against the petrochemical plants of “cancer alley.” We already know more than enough in many cases to take action to protect our environment and communities from toxic chemicals – all that is lacking is for state and federal governments to act.
  • The U.S. Toxics Release Inventory was the first such chemical right-to-know law in the world, but the United States risks falling behind other nations as their systems for informing the public catch up to – and in some cases surpass – our own. Canada, for example, requires oil and gas producers and sewage treatment plants to report their toxic releases; these sectors are exempt from reporting in the United States. With the rapid spread of natural gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing (something you’ll be hearing more about on this blog shortly), we need to know much more about the environmental impacts of fossil fuel production. It’s time for the U.S. to follow Canada’s lead.