"This move by the EPA will primarily assist small businesses that already release little or nothing into the environment at all from being overburdened with regulatory filings," says Andrew Langer, manager of regulatory policy for the National Federation of Independent Business, a Washington trade group.
But critics say the move seems to be an effort to weaken a reporting law that has empowered community activists with details about some 650 industrial chemicals that the TRI tracks. While TRI does not require emission controls, activists have used data to embarrass companies into cutting emissions.
"Americans who live near industrial facilities want to know what's going into their air and water," Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D) of New Jersey said during a recent teleconference with reporters.
The EPA move, which Mr. Pallone called a "terrible decision," could herald a wider battle with a new Democrat-controlled Congress with more intense oversight hearings examining EPA rulemaking in the new year, observers say. Legislation Pallone brought last year to cut funding for the TRI revision may be resurrected to block its implementation.
Of 24,000 facilities currently reporting TRI data, about one-third could be eligible to fill out a short form that simply lists the chemical, they said.
But one largely hidden element of the rule change is that big companies are among the largest beneficiaries, says Tom Natan, of the National Environmental Trust, a Washington environmental group.
"The idea that this change is meant to benefit small independent business is just not true," he says. "When they first issued the proposal last year, EPA was saying it's mom and pop businesses this will help, but it turns out it's really General Motors, Sunoco, and companies like that."
While thousands of facilities will see major reductions in their paperwork, Dr. Natan is most concerned about the 3,600 facilities, about 15 percent of the total, that his analysis shows will no longer have to report any emissions details at all. Many such facilities, which emit thousands of pounds of toxins, are operated by some of the nation's largest companies.