Susanne Rust, Meg Kissinger and Cary Spivak of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel were awarded last week the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism from Columbia University.  The three journalists close-out their excellent year of reporting with “EPA Veils Hazardous Substances“ explaining how the U.S. EPA allows chemical manufacturers to skirt around disclosure requirements with claims of ‘confidentiality’ and ‘trade secret’—even though the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) expressly prohibits manufacturers to withhold information when it pertains to health and safety.  The reporters

“…examined more than 2,000 filings in the EPA’s registry of dangerous chemicals for the past three years.  In more than half the cases, the EPA agreed to keep the chemical name a secret.  In hundreds of other cases, it allowed the company filing the report to keep its name and address confidential.”

So much for the public’s right-to-know.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporters write:

“The whole idea of the program is to warn the public of newfound dangers.  The EPA’s rules are supposed to allow confidentiality only ‘under very limited circumstances.’  Legal experts and environmental advocates say the practice of ‘sanitizing,’ or blacking out, this information not only strips vital information from the public, it violates the agency’s own law.  Section 14 of the Toxic Substances Control Act, the foundation for all the EPA’s toxic and chemical regulations, stipulates that chemical producers may not be granted confidentiality when it comes to health and safety data.  ‘The EPA has chosen to ignore that,’ said Wendy Wagner, a law professor at the University of Texas-Austin.”  [106-page PDF of TSCA]

They explain that TSCA:

“… began 30 years ago as a way to help the public avoid contact with dangerous chemicals.  The law requires companies that make chemicals to submit any information of potential hazards about their products to the EPA. The EPA, in turn, is supposed to make that information available to communities and consumers.  Companies can claim confidentiality if they are worried that their disclosures will reveal trade secrets.  They have to answer 14 questions, including specifics on why disclosing the information would harm the company.”

Myra Karstadt, PhD, a toxicologist who worked at EPA under the TSCA program, is quoted in the article:

“It’s been frustrating to see the program ‘starved of resources and generally abandoned.’   ‘It’s a very worthwhile program but only if it’s given a chance to work.’”

Dr. Karstadt was involved in EPA’s enforcement action against DuPont over the company’s failure to comply with TSCA’s reporting requirements for the chemical C8.  She wrote TSCA 8(e), Teflon and Me for The Pump Handle.

Read “EPA Veils Hazardous Substances“ and the full Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel series “Chemical Fallout” to understand why the reporters earned the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism for making:

“…an exceptional contribution to public understanding of environmental issues.”

The Columbia University’s Journalism School describes the John B. Oakes Award this way:

“…the award has gained a reputation among journalists as the nation’s premier environmental writing prize.  It has recognized work that exemplifies the best in American print journalism.  The award honors the career of the late John B. Oakes, a pioneer of environmental journalism who worked for The New York Times as a columnist, editorial writer, editor of the editorial page, and creator of the op-ed page.  It was created in 1994 at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environment and conservation advocacy organization, of which John Oakes was a founding trustee. The award is judged by an independent panel of distinguished journalists and environmental specialists.”

In selecting the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for the 2008 award, the director of the Oakes award, Arlene Morgan, said:

“We received almost 100 entries in the newspaper and magazine divisions for this prize and concluded that the Journal Sentinel once again led the nation in performing a watchdog role that has a far-reaching implication on health issues.”