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EPA inventory opens generators to scrutiny, especially if they burn coal.
Hazardous emissions are one thing. Damaging publicity is something else-especially in the point-and-click world of Internet access.
In the coming year, the fuels that utilities choose to generate electricity will fall under a stronger media microscope. That's when coal- and oil-fired electricity generators must begin reporting information about their accumulated releases of toxic chemicals for 1998. The public bundling of this data-much of which is already reported under four separate environmental laws-will add significantly to the pressure on some utilities to reduce their releases of toxic chemicals into the environment.
This time, however, it may prove much more difficult to manage any adverse publicity.
The pressure may come not only from environmental activists and government authorities. State groups, independent generators and other utilities-especially those trying to call attention to their environmental track records-may be among the instigators. In a competitive market for generation, suppliers may rely on reports of toxic chemical releases to distinguish themselves from the competition.
In the first 11 years of the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) requirement for chemical and other manufacturing companies covered under the statute,fn1, facilities submitting data reportedly have reduced emissions by 43 percent. Then, in 1997, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added seven industry groups to the TRI program, including electric utilities.fn2 "This will put a spotlight on how utilities are managing their wastes," said Maria Doa, chief of the Toxics Release Inventory Branch at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Virtually overnight, electric utilities that rely heavily on coal to run their generators could become the top overall polluters in a state or metropolitan area. How each generator fares will depend a great deal on how it explains its releases of the identified toxic chemicals. And that could depend on the company's understanding of the data when questions inevitably arise about its toxic releases.
"Some environmental and citizen action groups are going to jump all over this," said Ann Murray, executive director of the moderate Tennessee Conservation League. "Industry is the culprit; utilities are the enemy."
Leonard Hyman, a long-time utility analyst and the global power industry advisor to Salomon Smith Barney, thinks many CEOs don't yet see much of a distinction among relatively high and low chemical releases. But that could change.
"Some of these companies are paying big bucks for generating plants. They're about to discover other costs and operating responsibilities that come with them," Hyman said. "This is bound to give 'green' power another boost."
Controlling the Spin:
No Easy Task
The idea behind the TRI program stems in part from the 1984 chemical accident in Bhopal, India. In the aftermath, the Reagan Administration concurred with Congress that people living near industrial facilities should have access to information about what's being emitted into the air, water and land surrounding them. Two years later, the President signed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986, approved by the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.
In 1990, the Democrat-controlled Congress passed and President George Bush signed the Pollution Prevention Act. Among