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A fight over easing rules for reporting toxic emissions

The EPA plan would help small businesses reduce paperwork.

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Gracie Lewis is on a crusade to save the Toxics Release Inventory, a trove of federal pollution data vital to helping her - and activists nationwide - win community battles for cleaner air and water.

Until a couple of years ago, Mrs. Lewis was at her wits' end over the stew of chemical odors wafting into her home from nearby factories in the industrial heart of Louisville, Ky., a neighborhood known as "Rubbertown."

Though she still smells them today, the city now has a plan for beating back toxic emissions, in part because of TRI data gathered annually by the Environmental Protection Agency, she says. With those crucial numbers in hand, she and other activists can ferret out companies releasing harmful chemicals. "Once we smell it, we call the odor hot line," she says.

But that ability to check the numbers may be changing as the EPA mulls over whether to lower the TRI reporting requirements. Small businesses have welcomed the proposal because it eliminates extra paperwork. But Lewis, environmentalists, and first responders have become part of a vocal national backlash since the changes were first proposed in September. These groups argue they would lose vital data and would not be able to hold polluters accountable.

"The administration's recommendation is dangerous and cavalier and should be withdrawn or blocked by Congress," opined the Columbian, a daily newspaper in Clark County, Wash., in October.

Under the new EPA plan, TRI reporting would be done once every other year instead of annually. It would also substantially raise the thresholds for amounts of many toxic emissions that have to be reported - from 500 to 5,000 pounds. But it would save millions of dollars in paper shuffling by small businesses that emit little pollution anyway, EPA officials say.

"EPA's proposal would collect 99 percent of the same data and allow small businesses to meet their reporting obligations to EPA in a more streamlined way," says Eryn Witcher, the agency's press secretary.

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