From the 2009 Report “Justice in the Air: Tracking Toxic Pollution from America’s Industries and Companies to Our States, Cities, and Neighborhoods (pdf)”:

On the long road to securing the right of every American to a clean and safe environment, an historic milestone came when Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act in 1986. This law requires industrial facilities across the United States to disclose information on their annual releases of toxic chemicals into our air, water, and lands.

The premise behind the law is simple: the public has the right to know what pollutants are in our environment and who put them there. The resulting data, available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in something called the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), are not always easily accessible or readily usable. You can track pollution to the plant that caused it but not always to the company that is responsible. You can see the pounds of individual pollutants released at a plant but it’s hard to cumulate the overall health impact of the plant’s multiple pollutants.

And even if you can gauge the overall effect of a single facility, there is no easy way to determine what this means for a neighborhood burdened with pollution from many such sources.

This report tackles these issues by using a new dataset built upon the TRI dataset to measure the extent to which toxic pollution released by industry disproportionately contaminates the air in neighborhoods where people of color and low-income families live. Most significantly, we present a scorecard for companies that measures the extent to which their pollution is concentrated in these neighborhoods – the first time such a measure has been calculated and made available to the public.

This investigation is entirely consistent with the aims of the 1986 Right-to-Know legislation. The law’s proponents expected that better access to information would not only increase public awareness, but also increase public demand for actions by firms and government officials to curb pollution. Information, they believed, is power. The right to know was intended to be a means to thegreater goal of securing our right to clean air and clean water.

The mere fact that companies are now compelled to publicly disclose this information has had a striking impact on their behavior (Konar and Cohen 1997). Within the first ten years, total emissions of the chemicals listed in the TRI had fallen by 44% (Tietenberg 1998). For the most part these reductions happened without new regulations: when companies knew that the public knew about their releases of pollutants, they began to clean up their acts.

In the 1990s the EPA took another big step to expand public information about toxic pollution. The agency launched the Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI) project to assess the human health risks resulting from toxic chemical emissions at industrial sites. Building on the TRI data, the EPA combined three variables to assess the human health risks posed by toxic releases:

  • fate and transport, or how the chemical spreads from the point of release to the surrounding
  • toxicity, or how dangerous the chemical is on a per-pound basis; and
  • population, or how many people live in theaffected areas.

This report uses the information generated by the EPA’s RSEI project to develop a measure of corporate “environmental justice” performance based on releases of toxic air pollutants. Along the way, we explain what the data mean, which states and metropolitan areas are most affected, and what companies and communities can do to improve their performance and the environment.

Download pdf here.