According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory — also known as the TRI — and the U.S. Census Bureau, Wisconsin has the greatest percentage of people living near toxic release sites compared to all other states in the country.

The total number of sites in the state is 842, including 12 in Madison, with 37.3% of people in the state living near one.

TRI is a program of the EPA that compiles information about the release of toxic chemicals from facilities across the U.S. and creates reports in order to understand and analyze this data. According to its mission statement, the organization is a crucial provider of transparent, digestible information about public health and the environment for a variety of audiences, including researchers, universities and communities.

TRI defines “toxic chemicals” as those that cause chronic or otherwise significant health issues — like cancer — or that cause significant environmental harm. While this definition may seem vague, the TRI has identified 770 chemicals in 33 categories that fit these criteria. It is important to note while the TRI compiles information across a wide range of industries, many toxic chemicals are not tracked by the TRI.

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While the TRI website provides lots of raw data about chemicals released in different regions in the U.S., it does not on its own give much information about the tangible risks associated with living near a toxic release site. They explain that the risk to human health and the environment are dependent on several factors, such as the source, environment, population and exposure.

In order to help citizens better understand the conditions of the communities they live in, the TRI was created as one provision of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, EPCRA. Passed in 1986 in response to incidents of accidental release of toxic chemicals, EPCRA placed requirements on states and industries across the U.S. related to emergency responses and improved public knowledge about toxic chemicals.

Under the TRI, any facility that meets certain employee, industry sector and chemical threshold requirements must submit toxic chemical information to the TRI. From there, the EPA compiles and analyzes the collected information to disseminate to the general public. Facilities that do not comply may be subject to fines or other penalties.

This particular piece of legislation does not require facilities that release highly toxic chemicals to adjust their emissions based on the data they submit to the TRI. Instead, the onus of accountability is left to the public, who can decide what they would like to do with the toxic release information.

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Because of complex risk factors, however, TRI data does not offer much information that allows citizens to determine actual health risks. Even the Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators — RSEI system has limitations. This model assigns values to different regions, facilities and industries based on the chemical concentration, population, exposure and other data. On their own, RSEI scores do not have meaning — they must be contextualized through the comparison to other values.

Also, because factors like population size and toxicity weight can distort RSEI scores, high scores do not necessarily indicate high-risk sources. Therefore, these scores must be understood alongside population trends and the potential need to investigate further. Because RSEI is not a risk assessment — but instead a screening tool — these scores can’t tell everyday people what risks they face from toxic chemical releases in their communities. 

Effectively, the responsibility to advocate for change is placed on the general citizenry without having much information about what risks they face. And while citizen environmental advocacy has shown to be successful in some cases, institutionalizing this practice largely takes responsibility away from the government, large companies and other powerful entities in working toward environmental justice.

Citizens undoubtedly have the right to know what kinds of toxic chemicals are being released in the areas where they live and work. And while some may have the ability to advocate for change on the basis of public information, without concrete legislation that enforces improved toxic release practices on the basis of reported information, there might not be much that will get done.

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Reform is dependent on facilities’ willingness to adapt their practices or on the ability of Congress to pass legislation that holds these facilities to more strict standards. While I do not doubt local activists’ tenacity, people should not have to muddle through complicated data in order to earn the right to know if they live in safe, non-toxic environments.

Though the TRI represents a strong start for public knowledge of toxic releases, the EPA also needs to either offer citizen-accessible risk assessments or put more stringent enforcement provisions in place. In addition to reporting thresholds, there should also be requirements and incentives to encourage facilities to improve waste management in the first place. 

Ultimately, the notion of citizens’ ‘right to know’ has yet to be fully realized. Understanding where there may be a reason to further investigate potentially risky conditions is not the same as having actual conceptions of health and environmental hazards. And if the responsibility is to be placed on citizens to hold facilities accountable, releasing limited information is simply not enough.

Celia Hiorns ([email protected]) is a freshman studying political science and journalism.