The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), also known as Title III, is a statute enacted by Congress in 1986 as a part of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA).
EPCRA was enacted in response to public concerns raised by the accidental release of poisonous gas from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, that killed over 2,000 people. It has two distinct yet complementary sets of provisions. First, it requires communities to establish plans for dealing with emergencies created by chemical leaks or spills and defines the general structure these plans must assume. Second, it extends to communities the same kind of right-to-know provisions that were guaranteed to employees earlier in the 1980s. Overall, EPCRA is an important step away from crisis-by-crisis environmental enforcement toward a proactive or preventative approach. This proactive approach depends on government monitoring of potential environmental hazards, which is accomplished using computerized files of data submitted by businesses.
Under the provisions of EPCRA, the governors of every state were required to establish a State Emergency Response Commission by 1988. Each state commission was required in turn to establish various emergency planning districts and to appoint a local emergency planning committee for each. Each committee was required to prepare plans for potential chemical emergencies in their communities, which includes the identities of facilities, the procedures to be followed in the event of a chemical release, and the identities of community emergency coordinators as well as a facility coordinator from each business subject to EPCRA.
A facility is subject to EPCRA if it has a substance in a quantity equal to or greater than the threshold planning quantity specified on a list of about 400 extremely hazardous substances published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Also, after public notice and comment either the state governor or the State Emergency Response Commission may designate facilities to be covered outside of these guidelines. Each covered facility is required to provide facility notification information to the state commission and to designate a facility coordinator to work with the local planning committee.
EPCRA requires these facilities to report immediately any accidental releases of hazardous material to the Community Coordinator of its local emergency committee. There are two classifications for such hazardous substances. The substance must be either on the EPA's extremely hazardous substance list, or defined under the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). In addition to the initial emergency notice, follow-up notices and information are required.
EPCRA's second major set of provisions is designed to establish and implement a community right-to-know program. Information about the presence of chemicals at facilities within the community is collected from businesses and made available to public officials and the general public. Businesses must submit two sets of annual reports: the Hazardous Chemical Inventory and Toxic Release Inventory (TRIs), also known as Chemical Release Forms.
For the Hazardous Chemical Inventory, each facility in the community must prepare or obtain a Material Safety Data Sheet for each chemical on its premises meeting the threshold quantity. This information is then submitted to the Local Emergency Planning Committee, the local fire department, and the State Emergency Response Commission. These data sheets are identical to those required under the Occupational Safety and Health Act's worker right-to-know provisions. For each chemical reported in the Hazardous Chemical Inventory, a Chemical Inventory Report must be filed each year.
The second set of annual reports required as a part of the community right-to-know program is the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), which must be filed annually. Releases reported on this form include even those made legally with permits issued by the EPA and its state counterparts. Releases made by the facility into air, land, and water during the preceding 12 months are summarized in this inventory. The form must be filed by companies having ten or more employees if that company manufactures, stores, imports, or otherwise uses designated toxic chemicals at or above threshold levels.
The information submitted pursuant to both the emergency planning and the right-to-know provisions of EPCRA is available to the general public through the Local Emergency Planning Committees. In addition, health professionals may obtain access to specific chemical identities even if that information is claimed by the business to be a trade secret in order to treat exposed individuals or protect potentially exposed individuals.
Congress provides stiff penalties for noncompliance. Civil penalties of tens of thousands of dollars may be assessed against a business failing to comply with reporting requirements, and citizens have the right to sue companies that fail to report. Further enforcement by the government may include criminal prosecution and imprisonment.
In June of 1996, in response to community pressure, the U.S. Congress took up its first major vote on Community Right to Know since 1986. In the 1996 vote, the House of Representatives removed provisions from an EPA budget appropriation that would have made substantial cuts in funds allocated to compiling of Toxics Release Inventories (TRI). In addition, Congress passed an EPA proposal that added seven additional industries to the number of industries that must report under TRI, thus bringing the total number of industries required to report to 27. From 1996 to 2009, several changes were made to TRI requirements. Several new classes of industries including, coal and metal mining, were required to report to the TRI. Reporting thresholds were lowered to include companies that manufactured 25,000 lb (11,340 kg) or handled more than 10,000 lb (4,536 kg) of certain toxic chemicals or hazardous compounds annually. Companies that recycle, dispose, or release more than 500 lb (227 kg) of TRI listed chemicals into the environment have stricter, more comprehensive reporting requirements. Reporting and archiving of TRI data has expanded to online databases, such as TRI Explorer, that allow for easier access to information.
Studies revealed that EPCRA has far-reaching effects on companies and that industrial practices and attitudes toward chemical risk management are changing. Some firms implemented new waste reduction programs or adapted previous programs. Others reduced the potential for accidental releases of hazardous chemicals by developing safety audit procedures, reducing their chemical inventories, and using less hazardous chemicals in their operations.
See also Bhopal, India .
Ryan, Jeffrey R. Pandemic Influenza: Emergency Planning and Community Preparedness. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2009.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Emergency Preparedness & Response.” http://emergency.cdc.gov (accessed September 22, 2012).
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.” June 27, 2012. http://epa.gov/oecaagct/lcra.html (accessed September 22, 2012).
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Learn about Your Right to Know.” April 18, 2012. http://epa.gov/epahome/r2k.htm (accessed September 22, 2012).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1600 Clifton Rd., Atlanta, GA, 30333, (800) CDC-INFO (232-4636), firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.cdc.gov .
Paulette L. Stenzel