What's in Your Backyard?: EDF's New Toxins Website
Air Date: Week of May 15, 1998
Who are the major polluters in your community? As a citizen, you're entitled to know. The government requires most high- volume facilities to report how much of certain chemicals they're releasing into the environment. But these Toxic Release Inventory reports can be difficult to track down and even more difficult to understand. But a new site on the internet is changing all that. The Environmental Defense Fund has collected all the Toxic Release Inventory forms from around the country, entered them into a computer database, and added information about health effects. Steve Curwood logs on to www.scorecard.org. with David Roe from the Environmental Defense Fund.
CURWOOD: Do you know who the major polluters are in your community? Well, as a citizen, you're entitled to know. The government requires most large emitters to report how much of certain chemicals they're releasing into the environment, but these reports, called Toxic Release Inventory reports, can be difficult to track down and even more difficult to understand.
(A modem logging on)
CURWOOD: A new site on the Internet is changing all that. The Environmental Defense Fund has collected all the Toxic Release Inventory forms from around the country, entered them into a computer database, and added information about health effects. With David Roe from the Environmental Defense Fund on the line I called up the site: www.scorecard.org.
ROE: Probably the easiest way into this is just to put in your zip code and click the box that says GO.
CURWOOD: All right. Maybe I'll put in the zip code here for Living on Earth: 02138, and then I'll hit the GO button.
ROE: You see where it says "Rankings: Major Chemical Releases in Middlesex County"?
ROE: Give a click on that.
CURWOOD: All right-y.
ROE: And immediately what you see is this county ranked in the top 20% of all counties in terms of non-cancer hazards, air releases of recognized carcinogens, and a couple of other things.
CURWOOD: All right. Now here in Middlesex County, we have a number of important institutions of higher education. There's Brandeis University, there is Harvard University, there's MIT. So, let's look at neurotoxicants, see what's happening to the brains here in Middlesex County.
ROE: If you see there, there are 1 million, 600 thousand, 648 thousand etc. pounds.
ROE: Click on that number.
ROE: And what you'll get is a listing of exactly which chemicals those are, in order. The top one is toluene. The next one is methyl ethyl ketone.
ROE: It says, "See a list of facilities."
CURWOOD: Mm hm.
ROE: If we were to click on that, you get the names of the companies, where they're located, and the amounts. The company at the top of the list is Polaroid. One thing I should point out, the information that's available and that we've put together here will tell you what's coming out of where, and it'll tell you what kind of health effects it might be causing. It can't tell you, are you safe or not? No database anywhere can tell you that. That depends on local information. Just because it's coming out of Polaroid doesn't mean it's necessarily getting to your nose, for example.
CURWOOD: What do you hope the people who visit your site will do with all this information?
ROE: Well, one thing is, which is built in, is a take-action feature. If you click on that you get a list of the companies responsible for the top-ranked pollution problems in Middlesex County.
ROE: And over in the right-hand column it says "Send a fax for free." And if let's just take the top one, which is Altron in Wilmington, click on the word "Send."
ROE: What you have here is a letter: "Dear Manager, I just reviewed a detailed on-line description of your environmental emissions." It tells you what they are, talks about, "I was surprised to learn that they're not government reporting levels for these, 100% of the chemicals released air by your facility in 1995 couldn't be assessed for safety." Again, information specific to the facility. If you give us your name and address, then your name and address go on the bottom of this letter, and you get a button that says, "Send." This letter will then go to the fax machine of the right person at that company. And our point here is to begin to open a dialogue between local citizens and local companies emitting these chemicals about the very issues that have to be resolved locally if we're going to get somewhere.
CURWOOD: But wait a second. If I type in my name and and and address there, it also asks me to join the Environmental Defense Fund.
ROE: No, you don't have to join. It says, "Do you want to?" And you do have to give us your e-mail, because that's our way of double-checking.
CURWOOD: This is a very well crafted site. There's a lot of information here from the Environmental Defense Fund, but there are a lot of people that don't have access to the Internet and many of them live in poor communities that tend to have a lot of these polluting facilities. I'm wondering, David Roe, is there any way for them to make use of these reports?
ROE: There are a couple of ways. One is that public libraries now tend to have Internet access, so that even if people don't own their own computers they can go to the library. Another is we're working closely, of course, with local community groups. But of course, one of the audiences for this information is the companies themselves. If they're looking themselves up and don't like what they see, they may well be improving their practices and reducing their pollution. What we've learned in the past ten years from the information that's already been out is that that's a powerful factor. We're just hoping that a better mirror and a brighter set of lights around it will have more of the same effect.
CURWOOD: David Roe, senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, thanks for taking this time to show us around the site.
ROE: Thank you, Steve, a pleasure.
CURWOOD: And if you'd like to find out about pollution in your community, go to www.scorecard.org. That's www.scorecard.org. And while you're on line, be sure to stop by the Living On Earth web site. We're at www.livingonearth.org. Www.livingonearth.org.
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