Alaska Community Right-to-Know

From Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

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Alaska Community Right-to-Know

Most who think of Alaska picture immense regions of pristine lakes, mountains and river valleys – a place where all species of salmon still spawn, grizzlies freely feeding on their ample numbers, a place where Earth thunders with migrating caribou, sustaining the Peoples who’ve hunted them for generations. There is also another picture of Alaska.

The largest state in the country, Alaska has a land area of 375 million acres and one-third of the coastal shoreline of the nation.

Contrary to the perception of Alaska as pristine, military and industrial contamination are pervasive along many of the state’s rivers, streams and coastline, often in close proximity to communities.

Since World War II, approximately 80,000 synthetic chemicals have been introduced into commerce in the United States. Many of these chemicals can be found in the 2,000+ contaminated sites around Alaska. At least 700 of those are from military activities. A site of great strategic importance to the Department of Defense, Alaska has been used as an experimental testing ground for their nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare programs. Weapons testing ranges encompass an area approximately the size of the state of Kansas.1 The military is responsible for five of Alaska’s seven Superfund sites (the most heavily contaminated sites in the nation), leaving one to question if national security can be accomplished only at the expense of the people it is supposed to protect.

Given our country’s heightened attention to issues of national security, the government has clamped down on the public’s right to accessible information on a wide range of topics, the most hotly contested being chemical site storage and production. While ACAT shares these national security concerns, we believe that citizens* are best able to protect themselves if well-informed about the hazards they may be confronted with. Without question, our only real protection is the use of non-toxic or least-toxic alternatives to these chemicals, thereby avoiding altogether the dangers posed by threat of a terrorist attack, an accidental release, or long-term effects to human health and environmental. The Chemical Security Act addresses exactly this.

Introduced by New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine, the Chemical Security Act would require the most dangerous facilities to assess their vulnerabilities and hazards posed to nearby communities that would result from a successful attack. Facilities would then be required to develop a preventive plan including tighter on-site security measures and reductions in the use of hazardous chemicals through safer materials or processes. A significant step in the right direction, the Corzine bill addresses hazards rather than settling for risk management.

A new ethos is spreading. Ordinary people are challenging the notion that the regrettable but necessary cost of doing business must threaten human health and the environment. Awareness is burgeoning as the storage and use of toxic chemicals are seen through new, vulnerable eyes. Chemical manufacturers and the Bush Administration interpret this as a time to secret information. Citizen groups and certain congressional leaders, instead, are questioning the wisdom of using such hazardous materials when less dangerous ones are available. This is none too soon. Alaska, as other states, is struggling with contamination issues that are damaging our environment and causing illness in our people.

Alaska is the only state that allows production water and expended drilling mud (both full of toxic chemicals) to be dumped into coastal waters from its 15 offshore oil rigs in Cook Inlet.2 Mining production accounts for about ninety percent of the one  billion pounds of toxic emissions and waste reported to the latest Toxics Release

Inventory; a full sixteen percent of these discharges and wastes were generated from Alaska mines.3 Alaska has more land open to mining than any other state – including federal lands larger than the state of Washington and state lands larger than California.4 Yet Alaska remains the only mining state without mining-specific laws in place. Instead a hodge-podge of regulations from various state agencies attempt to address mine permitting and impacts.

The right-to-know is at the heart of a participatory democracy and the cornerstone of many environmental laws, including the Emergency Planning and Community Right- to-Know (EPCRA) law, which this document guides one through. EPCRA gives people access to information about pollutants being released in their communities that even fifteen years ago could not be obtained. Communities, Tribes, companies, legislative bodies, reporters, and government agencies have used this powerful law to negotiate on equal par with industry, reduce toxic releases, change laws, expose offenders, and enforce regulations. Since reporting began in 1986, citizens have used EPCRA in a myriad of ways to successfully reduce or eliminate exposure to toxics.

The core of EPCRA is the Toxics Release Inventory, which annually reports toxic releases by facilities in each state. Under the Toxics Release Inventory program, more than 23,000 factories, refineries, mines, power plants, and chemical manufacturers self-report to EPA emissions of toxic pollution to air, water, and land. On- and off-site releases for all TRI industries totaled 7.1 billion pounds for the year 2000. Plus, these industries reported creating 37.89 billion pounds of production related waste.

Yet, the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) is just the tip of the iceberg. Huge gaps in these pollution reports reflect the absence of certain industrial sectors. Waste incineration, sewage treatment facilities and the oil industry are not required to report. Absent from TRI, for example, are any facilities from Prudhoe Bay’s sprawling industrial complex. Thus, TRI provides only a snapshot of Alaska’s pollution problem. The snapshot, however, is disturbing.

In Alaska 25 facilities reported they released over 500 million pounds to the state’s water, air, and land, designating the state as the nation’s fourth highest polluter for the second year in a row. An additional 500 million pounds of solid waste was produced from these facilities. The mining industry is Alaska’s top TRI offender; Red Dog Mine alone accounts for over half of all toxic releases in Alaska according to the TRI, and has plans for extensive expansion. Certain exemptions, however, mean TRI data does not fully reflect industry’s pollution to Alaska’s environment.

These limitations aside, EPCRA is still one of the most powerful sources of information for the public. In this report, people will learn to use this important law to gain information about toxic hazards in their community. We will demonstrate how EPCRA enables citizens to be on par with corporate executives and government officials, stripping away the veil of denial about toxic hazards. In a participatory democracy at work, communities can have a strong voice in demanding their right to a toxic-free environment, one in which all have access to clean water, clean air, and safe foods…