|A contractor for Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality documenting potential PFAS contamination in a waterway in North Kent County. Photo: Michigan DEQ via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY ND-2.0).
Reporter’s Toolbox: Sleuths Tap Obscure Toxics Database To ID Loophole on PFAS
By Joseph A. Davis
A little-known U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chemical dataset has made headlines — and offers environmental journalists a new tool for unlocking information about potential toxicity problems.
The advocacy nonprofit Environmental Working Group, or EWG, which for decades has often marked the path that environmental reporters should follow when it comes to data journalism, has found a Trump-era loophole in U.S. chemical reporting law. That loophole allowed major companies to hide the amount of toxic PFAS (a class of “forever chemicals”) that they released into the environment.
Where the data comes from
What EWG did was to exercise one of the fundamental techniques of data journalism — to compare and cross-check two databases.
One database was the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, or TRI, which SEJournal has talked about often (e.g., on using it to find toxic threats, on the value of open data and on the latest update). The other was the Chemical Data Reporting database. The CDR’s data collection is required under the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, rather than under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, as is the TRI.
The Trump EPA amended a rule allowing an exemption
for ‘small’ amounts of PFAS. That was the loophole that
allowed big chemical companies to avoid reporting it.
During the Trump administration, the EPA amended its TRI rule, setting a “de minimis” reporting exemption for “small” amounts of PFAS. That was the loophole that allowed big chemical companies to avoid reporting PFAS to the TRI (while still reporting it to CDR).
Under TSCA, companies are required to report to the EPA every four years about chemicals they use in commerce or import. The field covers more chemicals than TRI, essentially all chemicals in commerce, namely those included on the TSCA Chemical Substance Inventory. This list now includes more than 86,000 chemicals.
But the CDR is really intended to help the EPA manage the regulation of chemicals under TSCA, rather than to inform the public about exposure. It is meant to be comprehensive, but there are exemptions for certain substances and companies below a certain size. And companies are only required to report if they handle more than a certain amount (generally 25,000 lbs or more of a chemical at any single site).
The database is, however, publicly available and downloadable online. It is not, however, easily searchable online. Here’s the access point for downloading data files.
Using the data smartly
Let’s face it, the EWG has more resources for computer investigation than many journalists do. But some journalists can work with the CDR data, and for those, it can reveal a lot about how well various TSCA programs are actually protecting environmental health.
There are many other chemicals in the CDR for environmental health reporters to worry about than just PFAS. Some are in the environment and some are even more toxic. That makes the database fertile ground for stories.
It is important to be aware that the list of chemicals on the TRI list has been evolving over the years. One reason PFAS has become a subject for computer reporting is that some of the major PFAS chemicals have just been added to the TRI list recently.
Although public concern was rising, very little was done by the Trump EPA to add PFAS to the list. Congress, responding to public concern, mandated inclusion of some PFAS on the TRI in the fiscal 2020 defense bill. Congress passed the bill and Trump signed it in Dec. 2019.
The EPA is proceeding with the rulemaking to implement it and has been rolling out the addition of PFAS ever since — mostly under Biden. Because of the time lag between when companies must submit data and when the EPA publishes it, it is just beginning to come online.
While the CDR is a worthwhile resource, journalists would do well to remember that it is just one tool — among the many journalists should use — for answering the important questions about toxicity to people and the environment. Whatever the data tells you, ground truth it.
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. 7, No. 38. 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.