The Environmental Protection Agency has reduced the amount of information that will be made public in the popular Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) database, according to a recent GAO report. Critics say the cuts are an attempt by the Bush Administration to curtail citizens’ right to know about the activities of their industrial neighbors.

The GAO report shows that the TRI reporting changes “will likely have a significant impact on information available to the public about dozens of toxic chemicals from thousands of facilities.”

The TRI is a key provision of the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA), approved by Congress in 1986 to help communities protect public health and the environment from chemical hazards. Pressure on companies from community groups armed with TRI data has led to changes in manufacturing processes and the installation of better pollution controls, says Tom Nathan with the National Environmental Trust.

EPA finalized a rule in December that allows TRI reporters, beginning this year, to switch to an abbreviated form—allowing a release of 2,000 pounds of a listed chemical, compared with 500 pounds under the old guidelines. The new form (Form A) merely certifies that waste was generated, whereas the prior form (Form R) details the pounds of each listed chemical treated; recycled; transferred on-site; and released to air, water, and land.

The Small Business Administration applauded the new rule, saying it will reduce the burden for companies. The EPA claims the new system will save businesses $6 million per year yet will affect only one percent of the releases reported each year across the country.

The GAO report notes that top EPA officials inserted the proposal to reduce the reporting burden by making it easier to switch to the short Form A, even though groups charged with recommending TRI reporting changes had rejected that idea. The agency also turned a deaf ear to the outcry over the changes: more than 99% of people who commented on the rule change strongly opposed it, according to an analysis by OMB Watch.

To view the full report “EPA Actions Could Reduce the Availability of Environmental Information to the Public,” go to  the GAO’s Web site. For a longer article on this topic, go here.