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"Veil of Secrecy" was reported in collaboration in with U.S. News and World Report.

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12.12.03
Politics and Economy:
Veil of Secrecy
More on This Story:
The Case of the Toxics Release Inventory

In "Veil of Secrecy," a NOW with Bill Moyers investigation with U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT, David Brancaccio examines the government’s actions to cut access to information about issues from toxic pollutants to airline and auto safety — leaving them hidden from public scrutiny. In an era in which homeland security is imperative, government transparency has been diminished. Since 9/11, the report shows the federal government has blocked access to information that may protect the public's health and safety.

The results of U.S. NEWS' five-month investigation into efforts to impose sweeping new secrecy requirements will be available on USNews.com beginning Saturday, Dec. 13 at 6 p.m.

One case of access to government information that may be limited in the future is the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), created by a 1986 federal law called the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) and augmented by the 1990 Pollution Prevention Act. The Inventory is currently available to the public online at http://www.epa.gov/tri/. The database contains information on toxic chemical releases and other waste management activities reported annually by certain covered industry groups as well as federal facilities. Users simply plug in their zip-code and get detailed reports on toxic releases in their neighborhoods.

Case in point: in Butler County, Pennsylvania, residents used the database to learn that the AK Steel Corporation had released more than 60 million pounds of nitrates into a local creek in 1997 and 1998. After public pressure, the government ordered the company to significantly reduce its nitrate discharges.

In a May 2003 report, the EPA documented the many uses citizens, scientists, governments and industry have made of the data stored in the Toxics Release Inventory. The report calls the TRI "a powerful tool for many environmental analyses and understanding the many factors that contribute to human health and environmental conditions." The Butler County case is one of the many cited by the report.

But now, this successful program may be in jeopardy. New legislation backed by the Bush administration could shield those polluters because it would keep "corporately identifiable data" secret from the public. Environmentalists fear that the bill could gut one of the most effective tools in cleaning up toxic pollution. Critics say that the secrecy clause is buried in the legislation in question, HR 2138, which elevates the EPA to cabinet level status.




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