October 13, 2004
Group criticizes how Ohio keeps pollution records
By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON — Environmental regulations require industrial plants to report when they accidentally release toxins into the air. But the reporting system is in disarray nationally and especially in Ohio, according to an environmental watchdog group.
After reviewing reports filed in Ohio, the Environmental Integrity Project concluded in August that two-thirds didn’t include a critical — and required — piece of information: the extent of the accidental toxic emission.
Given the nature of Ohio’s decentralized reporting system, state officials are having a hard time disputing that claim.
Among six states that the environmental group focused on, it said Ohio and Pennsylvania appeared to have the worst record-keeping systems regarding the documentation of “upsets” — the accidental releases.
“The files we were able to obtain suggest that many facilities are simply not reporting upsets in Ohio,” the Aug. 18 report said. “In addition, those facilities that did file upset reports often did not include the amount of pollution released due to the upsets.”
Two-thirds of the reports it reviewed did not include the amounts, the advocacy group said.
The response of the state official in charge of monitoring air pollution in Ohio might have inadvertently given credence to the main thrust of the study: disarray in the reporting system.
Robert Hodanbosi, chief of the air pollution control division at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said the state can’t confirm or deny the environmental group’s findings.
The reason: Unlike some states, Ohio has no centralized reporting system.
Records are scattered among five state EPA district offices and nine local air pollution control agencies that contract with the EPA to monitor air pollution in their areas. Since the records aren’t kept in a single physical or electronic location, no one has easy access to them all.
The only way the state could confirm or deny the Environmental Integrity Project’s claims would be to “do our own separate study to come up with a percentage,” Hodanbosi said.
And paying for such a study “doesn’t seem like ... a wise use of our resources,” he added.
In its report, the environmental group praised Texas’ centralized emissions reporting system, which includes a Web site where accidental emissions information is posted within 24 hours of a release.
State regulations require facilities to report information about emissions, including the amount of pollutants released, whenever there is a malfunction in equipment that causes the “emission of air contaminants in violation of any applicable law.”
In its 215-page report, the Environmental Integrity Project concluded that more than half of the states have loopholes in their laws that allow pollution from accidental releases to exceed legal limits. The group recommended that states eliminate loopholes, improve monitoring and reporting, and increase enforcement.
Accidental releases of toxic gases and particles expose millions of Americans to toxic chemicals such as benzene, butadiene and other cancer-causing agents, the report said.
Hodanbosi said the Ohio EPA is not planning to follow Texas in adopting a centralized reporting system or creating a Web site for emissions data. Doing so in Ohio would be a “pretty formidable task,” he said.
“I have looked at the Texas Web site, and the Texas Web site is certainly a desirable goal,” he said. “What I don’t know is how many resources they had to put in to complete that task.”
Besides, he added, decentralized reporting has its advantages.
“We like the (industrial) facilities to deal with our districts and locals because they are the ones making everyday contact with the facilities,” he said. “They are the ones doing the inspections.”
The decentralized system also has safeguards, he added.
“We have periodic phone calls with all the organizations to see if there are questions or issues,” he said. The agency also holds occasional meetings and distributes guides to help regulators interpret state rules, he said.
After the environmental group’s report was issued, the Ohio EPA said it would study the report to see if any changes were warranted. Hodanbosi said the agency has begun a process to review and modify regulations to make them “more consistent and clear.”
It will be about a year before any changes might take effect, he said.