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Reporter’s Toolbox: Early Toxics Release Inventory Data Can Yield Scoops
By Joseph A. Davis
Toxic chemical data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are out now — well ahead of the official publicity launch. They are full of news if you apply ingenuity and ask the right questions.
The Toxics Release Inventory, or TRI, is one of the foundation-stones of environmental data journalism. Yet it isn’t used enough — and often isn’t used imaginatively.
The data isn’t a story; it’s an investigative tool. In other words, you can find scoops in this data.
Where the data comes from
Congress enacted the law creating TRI in 1986, as a response to the worst chemical disaster in history, the Bhopal isocyanate release of 1984 in India.
TRI required a range of industries to report on the toxic chemicals they used, stored, transferred or released. The rules applied to a list of hundreds of chemicals when handled at certain quantities.
Journalists responded enthusiastically in the early years. But then enthusiasm waned. More so when journalists had to go beyond the prefab, pre-spun summaries EPA provided every year.
Meanwhile, industry and Congressional allies looked on disclosure of their toxic deeds with a jaundiced eye. So during the George W. Bush presidency, EPA cut back on toxics disclosure, and there was pushback from environmentalists, Democrats and some media.
If today’s media remembered how hard earlier journalists had fought to keep the data public, they might make more use of it.
Using the data smartly
Because of its comprehensiveness and longevity, TRI has become one of the foundations of many other environmental datasets.
Every year EPA releases the full, finalized TRI data (covering the previous year) with a suite of national overviews and analyses, as well as state-by-state pullouts that media love (those aforementioned prefab stories).
This year’s release comes in October. Fewer journalists notice (because there’s less brouhaha) that EPA releases incomplete preliminary data months earlier.
Can you spell “opportunity?”
You can leave your competitors in the dust
if you move now. But remember the data
may be incomplete or not fully vetted.
You can leave your competitors in the dust if you move now. But remember the data may be incomplete or not fully vetted. Ground truth what you can. Look at the actual data forms submitted by the facilities.
But the key investigative tool for looking into the data is called TRI Explorer. There’s also a simpler search portal and a more sophisticated one. If you are a true geek, you can download all the data.
[Editor’s Note: SEJournal has published many Toolboxes and TipSheets on using TRI over the years (for instance, see “Toxics Database a Key Tool for Environmental Journalists,” “TRI National Analysis Dangles Leads for Investigative Stories” and “Use EPA TRI Database To Find Toxic Threats”].
Let’s talk story leads. Here are nine angles to pursue:
- PFAS chemicals: This year (data for 2020), EPA added some 172 new chemicals to the list that must be reported. They are all PFAS chemicals, a family of thousands that prompts big environmental health concerns.
- Pandemic effects: Data from calendar year 2020 will in some cases show changes from lower demand, shuttered production or other economic effects of the pandemic. Compare the latest year’s data to earlier data.
- Previous years: It may signal news if the preliminary data for 2020 departs markedly from the same data for previous years. Take a look and get a head start.
- Is it legal? Many (but not all) of the chemicals reported via TRI are regulated by EPA under various pollution control laws. Cross-check a particular release against air, water and solid waste permits for a given facility.
- Is it “released”? Most (but not all) of the chemicals reported via TRI go somewhere safe (into products, into landfills, to customers, etc.). But if you look at the numbers, you may find some worrisome stuff being leaked, spilled, lost or otherwise unaccounted for.
- Environmental justice: TRI has evolved in recent years to be more useful for illuminating environmental justice issues. Another tool, EJSCREEN, makes it easier by layering demographic data on top of TRI and exposure data.
- Energy transition: The facilities reporting to TRI included electric power plants. What effects do the new data show related to changing fuels and power sources?
- Fate and exposure: Toxics only do harm if they get into the environment and people are exposed to them. There is an investigative tool called Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators that predicts the consequences of the basic TRI releases shown in the data.
- Facilities near you: Your editor and audience may be most interested in the local and regional consequences of toxic releases. EPA offers an online mapping application that makes it easier to see TRI facilities.
Even if you find stories in the preliminary data, remember that the final data and national analysis will come out sometime around October. You can use the lead time that the preliminary data gives you to prepare a fuller and more incisive story ready for the final release when it comes.
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 33. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.