State Toxic Use Reduction Programs Offer Lessons in Failure

Published February 1, 1998

State legislators and federal regulators seeking to improve the quality of the environment by introducing strict “toxic use reduction” (TUR) programs may want to reconsider their efforts. In the two states considered at the forefront of such efforts, the elaborate programs set in place almost a decade ago have come up empty-handed.

Frequently touted as the wave of the future in environmental policy, TUR programs in Massachusetts and New Jersey have basked in the glow of praise from EPA officials, environmental groups, and even some Members of Congress. At their behest, an effort is underway to impose the supposed virtues of the Massachusetts and New Jersey TUR programs on the nation as a whole. Their regulatory vehicle of choice is EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI).

The TRI is a list of some 650 chemicals whose emissions must be reported to EPA every year by certain industries. Since President Clinton came into office in January 1993, EPA has nearly doubled the number of chemicals on the TRI, and it has added entire new industry sectors to the reporting requirements.

EPA is on the verge of going far beyond mere quantitative additions to the TRI. The agency wants not only to require that companies report their chemical emissions, but also to mandate that they divulge how chemicals are used in production processes. In EPA parlance, this is known as “materials accounting.”

Materials accounting plays a key role in the Massachusetts and New Jersey TUR programs. Both states set goals of a “significant reduction” in the use of “toxic” (TRI-related) chemicals and a 50 percent reduction in “toxic” waste. Each state also requires that preparation and state review of pollution prevention plans, and TUR goal-setting, be the primary tools for reducing toxic use and toxic waste. Materials accounting, having little to do with actually achieving TUR goals, is used to measure chemical use. It is considered by those states to be an indispensable regulatory tool for facilitating preparation of the mandated pollution prevention plans.

By implementing materials accounting nationally, TUR advocates aim to redefine “pollution” to include the production and use of TRI-listed chemicals. Doing so, in turn, sets the stage for mandating national pollution prevention planning and toxic use reduction programs.

Taking Failure National

A new study from the Chemical Manufacturers Association warns against adopting on a national scale programs that haven’t worked at the state level. The study, New Jersey and Massachusetts: Toxic Use Reduction Successes? Models for National Programs? examines how the TUR programs have fared in the two states and evaluates whether those initiatives should be adopted on a national level.

The study finds that neither state’s materials accounting and pollution prevent programs have had significant, measurable effects on chemical use or toxic waste generation. In both states, overall chemical use and trends in waste generation have been strongly influenced by the activities of a few large industrial facilities. Data from those facilities indicate that reported chemical use reductions were unrelated to the states’ materials accounting and pollution prevention requirements or their TUR goals. Instead, economic factors–such as plant closures and changes in the product mix–significantly reduced or even eliminated the production of TRI-listed chemicals at several large facilities.

A preliminary assessment of the New Jersey data, for example, showed that at least half of the 1991-1994 use reductions reported by the state’s “Big Five” industries–paper, chemicals, rubber and plastic products, primary metals, and fabricated metal products–resulted from process shutdowns and plant closures at just nine facilities. The reductions were completely unrelated to New Jersey’s TUR program.

Moreover, data from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) show that the total use of 167 chemicals by all facilities increased from 9.5 billion pounds in 1991 to 13.2 billion pounds in 1994. “The reduction in use trend shown by NJDEP data for facilities in the “Big Five” industries thus contrasts with the growth which NJDEP data indicate for the state as a whole,” the CMA study notes.

TUR program results in Massachusetts were found to be similar. Massachusetts reported a 71 million pound reduction of chemical “use” over the 1990-1995 period. But shutdowns of just three Massachusetts plants reduced production (and use) in that state by 116 million pounds–63 percent more than the 71 million pound use reduction claimed for the state as a whole. “In other words,” the study notes, “without the reductions due to plant closures, total use in Massachusetts increased. In fact, the long-term use trend in both New Jersey and Massachusetts is likely to be upward, matching national trends.”

What Harm Is Done?

At their foundation, TUR programs are based on the notion that “toxic” chemicals are harmful in and of themselves, and that reducing industrial use of such substances will benefit the public health. No scientific research, however, supports that assumption.

“Chemical use does not equal chemical risk,” notes Dr. George M. Gray, department director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. “Different applications of a chemical pose different opportunities for exposure and risk. . . . Simply knowing how many pounds are used provides no information about health and environmental risks.”

It’s not only wrong “to generate a public impression that risk is measured by the volume of production and use of TRI-listed chemicals,” notes the CMA study, “but wrong to imply that the production of these chemicals can be reduced without unacceptable costs to U.S. production of goods and services, health and safety, and U.S. living standards.” “Toxic” chemicals are in fact key components of pharmaceuticals, health care, food production, aerospace, electronics, textile production, and water treatment, among other industries essential to human health.