Toxic Chemicals Data Can Inform Your Community of Risks

February 26, 2020
Facilities on the Toxics Release Inventory are not limited to chemical plants, like those above in Baton Rouge, La. They also may include municipal water treatment plants using chlorine or even food factories using toxic ammonia for refrigeration. Photo: Christopher Barnette, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Toxic Chemicals Data Can Inform Your Community of Risks

By Joseph A. Davis

Toxics in your neighborhood? You can find them with a stalwart data tool called the Toxics Release Inventory, or TRI, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency puts out every year. The latest update came out just this month, so it’s news.

The TRI is the fundamental source for many other EPA information streams on the location and fate of toxic and hazardous chemicals. You can use it to find toxic risks in your immediate community — or to paint broader and more complex pictures.

The inventory grew out of the worst toxic chemical disaster of all time, the 1984 Bhopal, India, methyl isocyanate leak that killed thousands immediately and left tens of thousands of others so injured they died later. Many were clustered in ramshackle housing around the chemical plant that supplied their livelihood.

The prospect of similar disasters at plants in the United States raised the possibility of preventive federal safety regulation. Industry averted this with a grand bargain: public information instead of regulation. 

As a result, the TRI was created in 1986, when Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, or EPCRA. The hope was that public awareness of toxic threats would drive public pressure on plants to adopt voluntary safety measures. 


While it’s true a lot of good journalism 

has come out of TRI, in the end, 

it has often been a disappointment.


Journalism was supposed to be a key ingredient. And while it’s true a lot of good journalism has come out of TRI, in the end, it has often been a disappointment. The easy route for same-day release stories has been simply to note your state’s rank in the worst-of list and move on. 

Since it’s easy to miss the opportunities for incisive enterprise journalism, this TipSheet provides a guide to context, tools and story ideas for your reporting.


What’s toxic, what isn’t, what might be

Every year, the EPA collects and releases toxics data that facilities are legally required to report, estimating the amounts of listed toxics they handle, store and release. 

To begin with, you will need to understand what gets counted in the TRI (and what doesn’t). 

First off, TRI makes facilities report what toxic substances they handle, store, process, ship or dispose of. In TRI jargon, a “release” means any event that moves a given amount of a substance offsite — which may simply mean sending it to a properly licensed landfill or a downstream chemical processor. 

Remember, the facilities on the list are not all chemical plants, not by a long shot. Some, like a municipal water treatment plant using chlorine, may be government-run. Others, like a large refrigeration unit based on toxic ammonia, may be at otherwise seemingly safe facilities like food plants.

Also remember that facilities have to report only those chemicals that are on a specific list and that they handle in specific threshold amounts. Currently, there are 755 individually listed chemicals and 33 chemical categories. 

Of course, there are other dangerous chemicals and some chemicals can be dangerous even below the threshold amounts. You can get some perspective via other EPA listings of chemical threats, found in the TRI “List of Lists.”

Find more basic how-to and orientation info here. Because the reporting and data-currying process is logistically huge, there is a time-lag in the data. The most current data set (the one just released) is actually for “reporting year” 2018. 


Sorting out TRI tools

You can follow the basic TRI dataset to many more resources. Among them:

  • An annual summary and analysis that gives a meaningful overview of geographic, sectoral and temporal trends.
  • A detailed database that presents the data in complete detail online. It’s searchable via the basic query engine called TRI Explorer, as well as downloadable.
  • A set of regional and state breakdowns helpful for customizing the story.
  • A collection of map-based presentations of TRI data that help you see the situation in a particular community or region, for example the TRI Community-Scale Mapping Project and the TRI Release Maps part of TRI Explorer (if it’s working, that is). 
  • Information on how the TRI is compiled (such as the ever-changing list of toxics that facilities must report).
  • A number of follow-on data products that combine TRI data with other information to offer more insight into the impact of toxic substances on real people.

You can also amplify the power of the TRI database with a number of other tools:

  • EPA’s Facility Registry Service, a master database of all facilities EPA touches, allowing easier cross-referencing of things like permits and enforcement status. It helps follow companies with many geographic locations and organizational/ownership layers.
  • EPA’s EJSCREEN, which overlays TRI data with geographic and demographic data to help identify and highlight environmental justice issues.
  • EPA’s E-FAST (Exposure and Fate Assessment Screening Tool), a model for estimating what happens to toxics after they are released and what human exposure may result.
  • EPA’s Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators Model combines TRI and other release data with fate and exposure factors to estimate actual toxic impacts on people.

And that is just the beginning. You can also find some gateways to the fascinating world of computational toxicology with downloadable data, predictive models or by searching EPA tools or toxic chemical resources.


Chasing down story ideas

The possibilities for using TRI resources for insightful, while high-impact, stories are endless, and will depend on the outlet and community you report for. 

Here are some possibilities:

  • What are the biggest-quantity toxics in your area of interest? Do they rank high because they are bulky or heavy? How does that translate to actual exposure and toxicity?
  • Is the release of particular toxics regulated or unregulated? Is a permit required to release it to air, water or a disposal facility?
  • Is a particular TRI facility complying with all its permits? You can explore that question further with EPA’s ECHO database.
  • Who lives near the facility? How near? How vulnerable are they? How much exposure do those residents have to the toxics from a particular facility?
  • What happens to the people who work at the facility? What occupational exposure do they have to particular toxics? Do they have more exposure than other people because they work there?
  • What industries or companies in your area dominate the toxics release picture? By toxicity? By volume? Who owns them? Are they politically influential?
  • What is the record of unplanned, accidental or catastrophic chemical releases from the facility via explosions, fires or startup/shutdown? Some of that info is required to be reported via Risk Management Plans submitted under another law. One entry-point to facility accident histories is RTK NET.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet and Reporter's Toolbox columns. Davis also directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet, and compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 8. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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