The Right to Know Nothing

By Les Leopold 

If you need a quick snooze, read a US Government Accountability Office report with its carefully parsed prose. But lost in the holiday rush was a December GAO report that could keep you awake as it bashes the Bush administration’s effort to water down the community Right to Know regulations that provide us with potentially life-saving information about the use, storage and release of toxic substances.  These regulations require that companies make detailed reports which form the Toxics Release Inventory – an accessible public database on the quantity of toxic chemicals on site and how much has been released into the air, land and water.

The rule changes have the smell of freshly minted money. Industry saves as the paperwork declines. More protection from histrionic public peeping toms is also welcomed by these secretive corporations The GAO estimates the new rules permits “3,500 facilities to no longer report detailed information about their toxic chemical releases and waste management practices.” Of the 90,000 Toxic Release Inventory reports now filed, 22,000 could no longer be available to the public. Although the EPA claimed the rules would impact reporting on less than one percent of total toxic releases nationwide, the GAO warned that it “masked the disproportionately large impact the rule would have on individual communities across the country.” But really, should anybody care about these arcane fine points?


An answer may be found by examining the contentious history of our Right to Know laws. The phrase was coined circa 1970 by Tony Mazzocchi (1926-2002), then the chief lobbyist for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. Mazzocchi received hundreds of complaints from chemical workers about workplaces that were enshrouded in clouds of what they called “dust.” These were the Dark Ages of toxic exposure, when employers, citing trade secrets, refused to tell workers or their unions what chemicals they made or used. But even when the workers uncovered the real chemical names, only 500 of the 20,000 chemicals then in use had any specific information about health impacts and recommended exposure limits — and those limits were set by industry consensus.
 
Although Mazzocchi and others succeeded in winning the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA 1970), corporations prevented the enactment of “Right to Know” rules.  For several intense years Mazzocchi then went on a virtual one-man-crusade, barnstorming the country to popularize the idea. In every speaking engagement, every interview, every radio or TV appearance, he would bring up Right-to-Know.  He pushed landmark cases through collective bargaining and arbitrations to establish the right corporation by corporation. He also inspired the formation of Committees of Occupational Safety and Health (COSH groups) that worked hard to secure state and local legislation.

As toxic horror stories reached the media, including the poisoning of children at Love Canal in upstate New York, the idea gained traction. By the early 1980s, public health, environmental and COSH activists joined with unions to push successfully for dozens of city and state “Right to Know” bills. In New Jersey, a coalition led by former Mazzocchi aide Rick Engler won a comprehensive bill in 1982 which became (and still remains) the gold standard.  It resulted in creation of thousands of Right to Know chemical fact-sheets which are used globally. Finally in 1984, after thousands died following a chemical release from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, Congress enacted the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA), which included the Toxics Release Inventory. This highly accessible data is used by nearly all EPA offices, state environmental agencies, environmental researchers, emergency responders like firefighters and police as well as local advocacy groups and many journalists to evaluate and in some cases enforce myriad environmental protection measures.
 
Even Bush’s draconian curtailment of information is not likely to return us immediately to the Dark Ages. But the recent plague of imported toxic toys should give us pause about manufacturing here at home.  Corporations in an increasing global competitive environment are under enormous pressure to boost productivity and profits. Changes in production processes and materials are accelerating, as is the pressure to escape regulations.
 
As Mazzocchi often warned, less rigorous regulation, like that found in many developing nations, leads to more cut-corners and more hazards, more toxic exposures and more releases. This undermines the regulatory regimen that has contributed so much to the prevention of more Love Canals and Bhopals.  No one can measure the precise increase in risks caused by the current cut back of Right to Know regulations. But increase they will. This gamble with the health of workers and communities is both unwise and unnecessary.
 
Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute and the Public Institute, is the author of The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi, Chelsea Green, December 2007 (excerpt here; Powell’s online ordering here).

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