If you live near a facility that releases between 500 and 2,000 pounds of a toxic chemical each year, you may be about to lose your access to important information about what you and your neighbors are potentially exposed to. That’s because EPA has changed its Toxics Release Inventory reporting requirements, raising the level at which facilities have to start detailed reporting on the release of designated chemicals from 500 pounds to 2,000. (More on the TRI and why it’s important here.) Thanks to the new rule, more than 3,500 facilities will be able to skip filing more than 22,000 TRI reports.

A report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office (PDF) tells us that the change is a blow to EPA programs, the IRS, state governments, researchers, and local advocacy groups that rely on TRI data. It also tells us that the EPA skipped some important steps in the usual process in order to meet a commitment to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

There are times when it makes sense to rush a rule process and skip some of the usual steps – for instance, when exposure to a dangerous chemical is destroying workers’ lungs, and delay will mean that more workers will be hurt. What was the urgent reason for rushing this rule to completion?

It’s those poor, burdened small businesses again.

The GAO report explains that OMB has been pushing for this TRI Burden Reduction rule – over the past several years, it has “encouraged EPA to engage in a multiphased effort to reduce the reporting burden on industry, particularly small business, by revising TRI reporting regulations.”

I don’t mind if the federal government wants to ease the paperwork burdens of family-owned restaurants, neighborhood hardware stores, and web-design shops run out of someone’s living room. But when it comes to a company releasing 1,900 pounds of toxic chemicals into their local environment, I don’t care how few employees they have or how small their budget is – they ought to be required to file detailed information about the chemical and what they’re doing with it.

Not only are the priorities in the wrong order here, but the GAO found that EPA overstated the benefits (savings to companies) and understated the costs (multiple stakeholders’ loss of information) of its new rule. This isn’t entirely EPA’s doing, though; OMB dramatically inflated EPA’s estimates of how long it takes to fill out TRI forms, which then increased the estimate of how much time could be saved by reducing the requirements. (For example, estimates for filling out the detailed form for non-PBT chemicals range from an EPA consultant’s figure of 7 hours to the EPA’s figure of 14.5 hours to the OMB’s figure of 24.6 hours.)

Such extreme variation in time-burden estimates might have raised a red flag for someone at some point during the extensive process that most EPA rules go through, but the agency cut that short – because, remember, the small businesses are suffering and need immediate relief! Specifically, the GAO noted in their report summary (emphasis added):

EPA did not follow key steps in agency guidelines designed to ensure that it conducts appropriate scientific, economic, and policy analyses and receives adequate input from relevant program offices before finalizing a major rule. This occurred, in part, because EPA expedited the rule-making process in an effort to meet a commitment to the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) to provide burden reduction by the end of 2006. The schedule did not allow it to meet the guideline’s provisions to complete economic analyses; evaluate the costs and benefits of the changes; or seek adequate input from EPA program offices that rely heavily on TRI data.

It’s a good thing we have the GAO to do a thorough job of evauluating the rule – and too bad that they’re doing it after the fact. For those of you concerned about toxic chemicals being released in your area, you might want to consult pages 31 – 38 of their report, which highlight the states that could find the biggest gaps in their data under the new rule. Check it out, and see how much information you’re giving up so those poor small businesses can get a break.

Liz Borkowski works for the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services.