LEAD Action News

LEAD Action News Vol 1 no 4 Summer 1993   ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News ( ISSN 1440-0561)
The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.

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Why the Need for Community Right-to-Know?

by Theresa Gordon, campaigner, NO-LEAD
(Northern Lakes Environmental Action Defence)

Hazardous materials pose a substantial and growing health threat. In the U.S., it has been estimated that over 70,000 processed or synthetic chemicals are in commercial use and that an additional 1,000 chemicals are introduced to commercial use each year. Moreover, the production and consumption of these materials has risen significantly over the last forty years. This increase in chemical use has lead to an increase in injuries caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals. The community right-to-know system emerged in the U.S.A. as a legislative response to this health threat.

The main aim of the community right-to-know system is to ensure the public availability of information regarding hazardous chemical use, to enable greater participation by the public in decisions regarding the use, handling and storage of hazardous chemicals and the drafting of regulatory policies.

Advantages of Community Right-to-Know

Though the legal rules that underlie the community right-to-know system are complex, the basic structure of the system is simple. Businesses handling hazardous materials must report that activity to the government and, through government disclosure, to the community generally. Community members and governmental officials use the reports both to assess the health threat created by the hazardous materials and to develop plans for dealing with accidents and emergencies involving those materials.

Finally, as a by-product of the reporting and planning processes, community members, business people and government officials develop a political dialogue over the role of hazardous materials in the community. Ideally, this dialogue forms the basis of a co-operative relationship between these groups.

The sorts of public participation made possible by a community right-to-know system include:

  • formulation of "good neighbour" agreements between local industry and concerned community groups;

  • worker involvement in research into reducing hazards in the workplace;

  • involvement in the planning of effective local emergency response strategies;

  • informed lobbying of industry and government to stimulate cleaner production practices.

Problems Associated with Community Right-to-Know

Unfortunately, in the U.S. the community right-to-know has evolved into a confusing bureaucratic system rather than one which fosters community involvement. The two main problems facing the community right-to-know system are:

  1. poor compliance - State and Federal agencies estimate that only fifty percent of businesses required to file reports had done so by 1989; and

  2. confusion over implementation - due to the different requirements of Federal, State and local agencies.

Many businesses fail to submit reports because they lack the expertise necessary for drafting such documents and are unwilling or unable to meet the expense of hiring experts to compile such reports. Even those companies which comply with the legislation often submit poor quality reports of their chemical use.

According to the community right-to-know rules, businesses which do not submit reports risk being heavily fined. However, many businesses continue to take this chance as the responsibility of prosecution tends to be passed from Federal body to State and then to local agency which often does nothing.

These problems have meant that the actual level of public participation made possible by the community right-to-know system in the U.S. has been low.

Possible Improvements to the U.S. System

Moves are being made in the U.S. to computerise the community right-to-know system. Though expensive, this would facilitate the handling of a massive number of often bulky and complicated reports. Computer access to this information would also facilitate greater community participation.

Storage of this data on computer would allow more efficient use of information in the event of an emergency.

Where does Australia Stand with Respect to a Community Right-to-Know System?

Though a comprehensive legislative system similar to that of the U. S. has been proposed by Senator Janet Powell, a mixed bag of laws and initiatives are currently in place in Australia.

The WorkCover Authority has two initiatives:

  1. National mandatory workplace availability of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). This initiative, though essential, is designed to cover occupational exposure to extremely hazardous materials by the individual in the workplace, and so does not cover situations in which large numbers of people suffer "milder" exposure.

  2. WorkCover is presently drafting a National Standard for the Control of Major Hazardous Facilities. This document is intended to cover the void in emergency response planning for major hazardous industry. Though only in draft form, it has already been criticised for not recognising the role of the public in formulating emergency response strategy.

The Prime Minister, Paul Keating, in his December 1992 statement on the environment, committed the Government to spending $5.9 million over the next four years to establish a National Pollution Inventory. This initiative should provide an important stimulus for waste minimization and the introduction of cleaner production practices. The inventory, which will be publicly available, will progressively bring together data on the emissions of pollutants to the air, water and the land.

However, by avoiding proper community right-to-know legislation, we are missing the opportunity to centralize all information pertaining to toxic chemicals and thereby establish a collection point where the community can access information about toxics which can affect their health, lives and that of their communities.

NO-LEAD (Northern Lakes Environmental Action Defence)

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