Pain-free Polluting

As Helotes’s 80-foot burning mulch mountain gasps toward an inarticulate conclusion, new federal reporting standards regarding the amount of toxic pollution being released — or, rather, the toxic pollution being released that you will know about — are just warming up.

The new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule governing how facilities report the release of more than 650 toxic chemicals listed under the Toxic Release Inventory went into effect January 22. It promises to clear San Antonio skies — on paper.

Under the new requirements, facilities releasing less than 5,000 pounds of the TRI’s known and suspected human cancer-causers will be exempt from reporting their toxic contributions. Instead, companies will be able to submit a short form that neither estimates the amount nor type of chemicals released. EPA officials say that by raising the TRI threshold for detailed reporting from 500 pounds to 5,000 pounds (as long as no more than 2,000 of those pounds are released directly into the environment), they are lightening the reporting load for small businesses and motivating companies to expand chemical-recycling programs. In Bexar County, this boils down to more than 30,000 pounds of toxic pollution that will disappear from the books. It’s as if a mulch pile’s worth of poison just vanished from the landscape. Only it didn’t.

As a self-reporting tool, TRI is far from perfect. But it’s imperfect in ways that should require more reporting — not less, activists say.

“I would say that TRI has been positive, powerful, effective, and revolutionary,” said Neil Carmen, the Clean Air Program director for the state Sierra Club chapter. “TRI has been used to counter the claims of officials and industry that say there is very little pollution occurring when the TRI shows significant volumes being released.”

EPA Deputy Press Secretary Jessica Emond defended the changes, telling the Current that “If companies want to save time by using the short form for reporting, they will have to eliminate or minimize releases and other disposal, and shift to environmentally preferable ways of managing chemicals.”

As it stands, more than 20 Bexar County facilities will be able to roll completely off the TRI roster without reductions. Of the 45 facilities in Bexar County who had to report TRI chemical releases in 2004, the most recent year for which data is available, 21 would not have to report this year at all if their emissions haven’t increased. That would mean about 31,500 pounds of toxins and more than 1,000 pounds of heavy metals will disappear from public record.

Michele Feenstra, chair of the San Antonio Manufacturers Association’s environmental board and senior project engineer at Malcolm Pirnie, Inc., supports the change, saying that about a dozen of the 40-some reporting facilities are SAMA members. She questioned how useful TRI had become — at least in the lower ranks.

“I don’t think any manufacturer wants to report just for the sake of reporting,” she said. “You want that data to be useful somehow.” With small numbers and big reporting pricetags (reports cost an average of $600), it doesn’t always seem worth the time, she said. Anyway, “EPA’s still going to go after the big guys.”

But in reviewing the 2004 TRI numbers it is clear that the big winners in Bexar County are not the bit players Feenstra and the EPA assume. Those who benefit the most are larger companies releasing multiple types of toxic substances at lower levels. They are companies like ExxonMobil (who may get to hide 3,500 pounds under the new rule), Flint Hills’ Koch Industries (5,200 pounds lighter), and Valero’s terminals (at 4,600 and 6,500, respectively, the toxic weight-loss winner!). Valero, valued at $33 billion, gets to cut 19 TRI reports at its two San Antonio refinery terminals (a savings of up to $15,000 in TRI report preparations).

Carmen at the Sierra Club points out that companies have been caught fudging their numbers in the past. As Houston started getting tough with its ozone problem in 2001, for example, aerial investigators found that refineries and chemical plants there were vastly underestimating their contributions of volatile organic compounds or, in trade lingo, VOCs.

“The levels of VOCs measured in the air over the plants was six to 12 times what the companies reported to EPA and TCEQ,” Carmen said. Since VOC chemicals like benzene and 1,3-butadiene, known and suspected carcinogens, also contribute to the creation of ground-level ozone, the city couldn’t look the other way. Houston was, after all, facing tough fines and penalties from the EPA for unhealthy ozone levels.


Enrique Valdivia of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid and the Aquifer Guardians, used TRI data to take on environmental-justice issues in East San Antonio in the late ’90s. Under Valdivia’s watch, the Esperanza Environmental Justice Project published a report that included detailed pollution summaries of Eastside players like pipeline operator Koch Industries and City Public Service. It helped galvanize the community and redirected economic strategies in the area.

With the rule change “there will be less or no information about certain smaller polluters or toxics,” Valdivia said. “In communities where there are a lot of small polluters this will give the false impression there are no significant releases.”

From the industrial perspective, Feenstra said, responsible players will continue to “do the right thing,” rule change or no. But when standards don’t make sense “other companies will look for alternatives just to get out of reporting. A lot of times those won’t be the best alternatives.”

Consider yourself warned.


EPA Libraries Torched

It’s not just toxic shell games that have critics all atwitter – the EPA’s modernization of its regional library system is limiting the public’s access to environmental information, too.

Of course when we say “modernization” we mean it in the broadest sense of the word, doused with a twist of flammable regulatory vernacular. The libraries are being razed.

Last year, the agency began closing several of its libraries with the promise of transferring the information to an online service called the National Environmental Publications Internet Site. It took its lead from the Bush Administration’s proposed ‘07 budget, which recommended cutting the library services from a budget of $2.5 million to a paltry $500,000. Long before the budget’s congressional approval, boxes began to fly.

Congress doesn’t like that sort of thing. After widespread reports began to circulate about files and documents being trashed, some lawmakers intervened. Now with the Region Six library in Dallas shuttered along with four others across the country, another information-inventory complaint has arisen. Digital archives that were supposed to house the retired documents have been frustratingly difficult, if not impossible, for EPA librarians to navigate, according to the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

“EPA is now experiencing the worst of both worlds: its physical collections are compromised and its online index does not work,” PEER Associate Director Carol Goldberg said.

While it is unclear how much data has been lost forever, EPA officials told the Current that until those questions are answered, interested parties should consider taking out inter-library loans.

— Greg Harman


Since 1986, the SA Current has served as the free, independent voice of San Antonio, and we want to keep it that way.

Becoming an SA Current Supporter for as little as $5 a month allows us to continue offering readers access to our coverage of local news, food, nightlife, events, and culture with no paywalls.

Join today to keep San Antonio Current.

Scroll to read more San Antonio News articles

Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.