Feb. 7, 2006--Small-business advocates are speaking up in support of a controversial Environmental Protection Agency proposal that would relax reporting requirements for companies with low toxic-release volumes.

The proposed changes to the Toxic Release Inventory requirements are now nearing the end of the EPA's internal rulemaking process. The official commenting period ended in January, but members of the Senate and environmental groups are continuing to raise their opposition.

The current system requires all businesses possessing toxic substances to annually itemize their releases into the environment; this data constitutes the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). Only companies with fewer than 500 pounds of non-PBT (persistent, bio-accumulative, and toxic) release are permitted to use an abbreviated reporting form (Form A instead of Form R). Under the proposed change, the exemption would extend to non-PBT releases 10 times that weight and also to companies with zero PBT release, allowing a larger volume of toxins to go unreported -- potentially streamlining the process for both small companies and the EPA.

Opponents to the change defend the current requirements and stress the success that it has had in curbing pollution. "The volume of toxic material released annually in the United States has fallen by an estimated 59% since the annual disclosure requirement went into effect in 1998, six U.S. senators wrote on Nov. 10, 2005, to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson. Additionally, they point out, the TRI aids public health officials, academics, first responders, investors and local citizens in making informed decisions.

As environmental groups and the six U.S. senators -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Sen Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) -- voice their concerns, supporters of the change are also trying to make themselves heard. The Small Business Administration and the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) have released a series of statements and op-ed pieces explaining why the system needs change.

Andrew M. Langer, manager of regulatory policy for the NFIB, a Washington, D.C.-based lobby, casts doubt how much current TRI reporting directly benefits the environment, arguing in a Jan. 10 USA Today op-ed that it's "a paperwork regulation -- an exercise in environmental accounting and one that, for small businesses especially, is confusing, complex and incredibly time-consuming.

The problem with current TRI regulations, Langer wrote in the same op-ed, is that "it treats the smallest of small businesses the same as it does large companies, ignoring "the well-recognized disparities that exist between [them].

A Jan. 17 NFIB statement in support of the rules change made a similar argument, noting that "a neighborhood auto repair shop fills out the same set of forms as a huge oil refinery.

The EPA estimates that reducing the administrative burden would provide relief to 33% of reporting companies and could save small companies 165,000 hours a year. Upon request, the EPA provided the Senate with a state-by-state list of hundreds of companies that would benefit.

While many companies are pleased by the prospect of reducing administrative expenditure, other affected companies view the extensive reports as more of a corporate responsibility than a burden.

In a related attempt to further improve TRI reporting, the EPA is seeking to switch to alternate-year reporting, which, they insist, will free money that can be reinvested in TRI software, analysis, and Web-based reporting.