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 its requirements was a mandate to expand TRI to include additional information on toxic chemicals.
Not to be outdone, on Earth Day 1997, President Clinton announced his administration was expanding the TRI requirement to include electric utilities, commercial hazardous waste treatment facilities, metal mines, petroleum bulk terminals, coal mines, solvent recyclers, hazardous waste storage and disposal facilities, and chemical wholesalers.
Each year since 1987, about 24,000 chemical, paper and other industrial companies have filed TRI reports on releases of what now amounts to approximately 650 different chemicals. Utilities had been exempt, but that status ended in 1997.
Under TRI, each coal- and oil-fired generating facility is required to take a separate inventory of the toxic chemicals it releases into the air and water and onto the land, including any underground injections. With that data, the EPA intends to create a report that can be used by policymakers, activists and adversaries to hold companies accountable for their releases. This approach is proving to be an efficient means of motivating companies in other industries to reduce their emissions, not only because it's good politics but also because it makes good business sense.
"Companies can do whatever they want with this information. It's their data," said EPA's Doa.
By June 30, 1999, electric utilities are required to submit a report to the EPA, in writing or electronically, to identify their 1998 toxic releases. Also, they must deliver that report to the environmental regulatory agency in the state where each generating facility is located. As this issue went to press, 37 states plus the District of Columbia were accepting electronic submissions.
EPA said it would allow emitters to review the data they've submitted for accuracy until Oct. 15, 1999. After that, by mid- to late-2000, the agency says it will publish the data in a volume several hundreds of pages in length. But don't count on the data staying under wraps until then.
As soon as it is made available, expect that any private-interest or advocacy group worth its salt (or should we say "silicon") will have packaged and posted the data on the World Wide Web within days-or perhaps even minutes for those utilities that file electronically. The moment a utility zaps its files to the EPA, even before Oct. 15, when the information becomes "official," they could appear on a public website. Therein lies one big pitfall. Some utilities appear better prepared than others.
For those that aren't quite prepared, here are three important caveats:
1. Few Mitigation Options. Many industrial companies have at least a couple of options for reducing their emissions. In fact, some chemical and paper companies employ re-engineered processes that significantly reduce the toxic chemicals released. Not so for utilities using coal or oil, because processes fired by these fuels entail combustion. And right now, alternate methods don't exist for burning coal or oil to power the turbines that generate electricity-if the lights are to stay on, that is.
2. Scrubbers No Help. Whatever is released by combustion will be part of a utility's Toxics Release Inventory. So even if some emissions are captured, as other laws require-by scrubbers atop smokestacks, for example-they still must be reported under TRI. Analysts expect that utility emissions will increase the national TRI total by approximately 50 percent.
3. Health Risks Left Open. Accurate information about potential health impacts of emissions is not included in the data compiled in the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory. Explaining these facts is left up to the emitter. Considering the stakes, that's a responsibility not to take lightly. The public will have no easy means of learning the difference between the release of a toxic substance and the risk of a dangerous exposure. And emitters shouldn't expect environmental groups to do it for them.
One of the biggest issues separating EPA and the industries required to report their toxic emissions is that the release of a chemical does not necessarily mean someone's health is at risk. TRI data is nothing but raw numbers. The inventory is not adjusted to account for what the EPA acknowledges are at least three factors to consider in using TRI data.fn3
For instance, TRI chemicals vary widely in what effects, if any, they produce. Some high-volume releases of virtually non-toxic chemicals might appear to be a more serious problem than lower-volume releases of highly toxic chemicals, when just the opposite may be true. Also, some chemicals degrade faster than others. They might pose less of a health risk than substances that don't break down so quickly. But that information won't be found in the TRI reports.
Whether it's air, water, on land or through underground injection, the medium of release can greatly influence how someone is exposed to a chemical, not to mention what impact it could have. Add to that whether a chemical release is inhaled, touches a person's skin or is ingested, and there are many different ramifications. These fine points won't be explained easily in sound bites that journalists will be looking for.
Explaining the Risk:
Wait for EPA Guidance?
As this issue of Fortnightly went to press, the U.S. EPA was putting the finishing touches on a draft of a TRI users' guide to explain how the data should be interpreted.fn4 DOA said the EPA would submit a draft of the guide to the National Advisory Council on Environmental Policy and Technology for comment in January with hopes of releasing the official guide in March. (See a list of NACEPT members at EPA's website: www.epa.gov/opptintr/tri/tdrlst.txt.)
EPA also is working on a means of developing relative risk rankings for TRI data. However, the agency can't say when it expects to complete them. Such a model would include toxicity, exposure and population components, and is being designed to generate risk rankings by chemical, industry, state and/or facility. If the users' guide isn't expected to be available until TRI's thirteenth year (it began in 1987), then the industry probably shouldn't hold its breath for this far more complex risk-evaluation tool.
Pending guidance from the EPA, how can a utility put TRI into some kind of perspective? Here are some options:
• Assign an expert team to take responsibility for reporting and explaining release data.
• Be prepared to acknowledge how bad the numbers might appear. Be ready to explain that the data identifies releases only-not the degree of public exposure.
• Explain why you chose to build coal plants. Emphasize any constraints on the use of natural gas at the time of construction, plus the relatively low cost of coal.
• Document progress on reducing overall emissions. Spell out your plans for reducing them further.
• Consider a regional or statewide effort to develop and assign relative toxicity rankings to chemicals to help put your emissions into perspective.
Some utilities are not taking the voluminous TRI requirements and the added reporting expense lying down. Dayton Power & Light and Entergy Services have sued the EPA over whether the agency can broaden the scope of TRI beyond its original application to manufacturing facilities only. The companies say their generating facilities are regulated through other federal laws,fn5, which have reporting requirements of their own.
The utilities also are challenging whether EPA's expanded definition of a "release" applies to the chemicals and chemical compounds that come out of a generating plant but aren't necessarily "released" into the environment. One example would be the metals bound up in coal ash, which is disposed of in certified landfills and doesn't come into contact with the public. The judge in the case, June L. Green in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia,fn6, is expected to issue a ruling by April. Whatever she decides, the losing party is likely to appeal.
Dealing With Competitors:
Lessons From the NOx Wars
A utility that operates in an increasingly competitive market where environmental stewardship is influencing its authority in policy circles and perhaps the market should think hard about releasing its TRI data very early in the upcoming year. Otherwise, the company could find itself on the defensive, as a competitor that releases its data earlier probably will have already set the tone and expectations for utilities in the region. You can bet they will be ready to spin the benefits of their approach in contrast to other regional power suppliers.
One hint of how environmental performance could distinguish electric generators can be seen in the debate over nitrogen oxide emissions and other precursors of ozone that plague large cities during the summer. This tussle pits environmentalists and primarily Public Service Electric & Gas in New Jersey against predominantly coal-fired utilities in the Southeast and upper Midwest.
PSE&G, which uses nuclear and natural gas as well as coal to generate electricity for customers in a vertical swath of northern and central New Jersey, is arguing-so far successfully-that out-of-state NOx emissions are carried into New Jersey by prevailing air streams. The company says it is being tagged with someone else's clean-up bill and that is driving up its costs.
PSE&G wants any electricity marketer, including lower-cost, coal-fired utilities eager to enter the New Jersey market, to abide by comparable environmental standards. At least one predominantly coal-fired utility in the Midwest, American Electric Power, has called PSE&G's NOx initiative little more than "a means to hold back the electricity competition they are not ready for."fn7
PSE&G's position recently was upheld in a regulatory action,fn8, that requires power plant NOx reductions in 22 eastern states throughout the South and Midwest. Furthermore, the utility supports EPA's proposed tightening of national "ambient air quality" standards for ozone and particulates.
The environmental "Agenda for the Future" on PSE&G's website "supports" the TRI. To some observers, this suggests the industry will be hearing a lot more from the company about what constitutes good environmental stewardship.
Among Southern utilities taking action on the NOx front is the Tennessee Valley Authority. It unveiled a "new clean-air strategy" to give the states it serves "greater flexibility for industrial and economic growth in the region." The NOx reductions are expected to cost at least $500 million on top of actions TVA already is taking to comply with the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments.
Perhaps Murray of the Tennessee Conservation League summed it up best by saying "what we're looking for here is progress on some very positive actions that can clean up the environment but also create some new markets for products and services that can help us do that. Whatever happens, we'll end up paying for any changes. So we should try to make them practical ones."
Jim Pierobon is a vice president with Potomac Communications Group Inc. in Washington, D.C., which counsels utilities, energy companies and waste management firms on how to interact with the public and other stakeholders about their environmental performance. More information about TRI can be found at Potomac's website: http://www.pcgpr.com.
How Toxic? Tennessee roundtable ranks pollutants
Should companies collaborate on presenting the data?
One such effort, the Tennessee Pollution Prevention Roundtable (formerly the Tennessee 2000 Initiative), represents a partnership of industry, environmental interest groups, government and educational institutions whose mission is to improve the quality of the environment in the volunteer state.
In 1996, the group offered a study of air pollution produced by cars, power plants, manufacturing industries, government institutions, commercial offices and even homes. The study adopted a relative toxicity score first developed by Vanderbilt University professor Edward Thackston and first used by the Tennessee Conservation League.
Such a ranking could also compare emissions and toxicity, according to Richard M. Strang of Eastman Chemical Co. in Tennessee. What this accomplishes remains to be seen.
"We think there's a really big flaw in the TRI criteria," said Ann Murray, executive director of the Conservation League. "What some people might think of as a dangerous release really isn't; and what might appear to be a benign chemical could be very threatening to human health."
Another member of the Roundtable, Alan Jones of the Tennessee Environmental Council, said data submitted to EPA will tell only part of the story. "As it stands today, the TRI report does not include some important pollutants and sources, nor does it address the differing potential health risks of different pollutants released into the atmosphere."
Who's Got Your Data?
Groups that might post your report
on the Internet
Studies have shown that advocacy organizations are the groups most frequently contacted by the public for TRI information. By publicizing and trying to interpret TRI data, organizations such as those listed below are becoming effective at pressuring companies to reduce their chemical emissions. If nothing else, they are equipping citizens with TRI data to lobby state and local regulators.
Environmental Defense Fund (www.scorecard.org)
The EDF's "Chemical Scorecard" allows the user to send free faxes describing their concerns to the top-ranked polluters in an area. It provides a list of environmental organizations in the user's area, which he can contact to work with on local toxic chemical problems. And it provides information about pollution prevention-how companies can avoid creating pollution in the first place.
The RTK (Right-To-Know) NET (www.rtk.net)
This is a network providing free access to numerous databases, text files and conferences on the environment, housing and sustainable development. With the information available on RTK NET, one can identify specific factories and their environmental effects, analyze reinvestment by banks in their communities, and assess the people and communities affected.
Envirofacts Warehouse (www.epa.gov/enviro)
The EPA created the Envirofacts Warehouse to provide direct access to the vast amount of information in its national systems. The Envirofacts Warehouse helps EPA fulfill its responsibility to make information available to the public, as required by the 1996 Superfund Reauthorization Act and other federal legislation. Among other things, the Warehouse contains a relational database of the national database of Superfund sites, the Envirofacts Master Chemical Integrator, locational reference tables and a variety of demographic data.
1 Sec. 313, Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986, 42 U.S.C. sec. 11023.
2 Addition of Facilities in Certain Industry Sectors; Toxic Chemical Release Reporting; Community Right-to-Know (Final Rule, effective Dec. 31, 1997, for reporting year beginning Jan. 1, 1998), 62 Fed. Reg. 23834 (May 1, 1997).
3 "Factors to Consider in Using TRI Data," 1996 Toxics Release Inventory, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, May 1998, p. 9.
4 Distinguish this user's guide from the handbook to assist utilities in reporting toxic releases: Guidance for Electricity Generation Facilities (Version 1.0), Sept. 26, 1997. See http://epa.gov/opptintr/tri/industry.htm.
5 Federal laws that already require reporting of chemical releases include the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
6 Case 1:97CV03074, filed Dec. 23, 1997.
7 From an April 17, 1997 dispatch by Reuters.
8 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 110 State Implementation Plan (SIP) Call.
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