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EPA Reinstates Tougher Toxics Reporting Rules

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Just in time for Earth Day comes this announcement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that there will again be stricter reporting requirements for polluters who release toxics into the environment--and therefore better information for the public about pollution in their neighborhoods.

Since 2006, a Bush Administration rule had eased reporting requirements for oil refineries, automakers, and electronic manufacturers on nearly 600 chemicals, including arsenic, benzene, and cadmium. They were not required to make detailed reports if they used less than 5,000 pounds of toxic chemicals, or released less than 2,000 pounds worth.

Now that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has signed a new rule, these facilities will be required to report in detail on chemical releases of more than 500 pounds, just as they did back in 1986, when the standard was first established. The reversal was prompted by a provision tucked into the 2009 spending bill.

The agency says its updating its "TRI-ME" software that facilities use to report the toxics, and that the next reports are due on July 1, 2009. Data are made available to the public in downloadable databases here. Already enterprising programmers have created mashups such as this map that allows the user to search toxics by city or zip code.

But mashups are only as good as the data that feed them--another way of saying garbage in, garbage out (or in this case, is it less detailed toxics data in, more garbage out?) The EPA's actions today will give us all a better picture of what toxics nearby. Of course what would be better yet is if we could find out this information in real time, rather than waiting for periodic reports. Maybe for next Earth Day.