An Embarrassment Of Clean Air

Federal laws controlling pollution can be excruciatingly detailed. Regulations not only limit the quantity of chemicals that companies can spew out but also dictate the methods they must use to curtail pollution. When it comes to cutting output of the most dangerous chemicals, though, the government has found a far more effective weapon than the law: embarrassment.

In 1986, Congress amended the Superfund law to require manufacturers to make public an inventory of chemicals they stock and to report the quantities of some 300 toxic chemicals that they release each year. On May 25, when the Environmental Protection Agency plans to release five years of data on the approach, it will show that the toxic releases of U.S. manufacturers are falling. What's more, chemical makers, which pump out the largest share of these poisons, cut their emissions by 35% between 1987 and 1991. "Companies just want to get off the lists of top polluters," says one industry official.

RED FACES. Indeed, the Clinton Administration now sees such pollution-prevention efforts as the wave of the future. "We must move away from end-of-the-pipe regulation," said Carol M. Browner, the EPA administrator. "We're going to have to focus on preventing pollution."

On May 18, Browner announced a policy shift intended to discourage the production of hazardous waste: She slapped an 18-month moratorium on increasing capacity for toxic-waste incinerators, pending an overhaul of regulations. She is also considering expanding the toxic-release program to include industries such as utilities, mines, and large recyclers, and to raise the number of chemicals covered beyond the current 300. To set an example, President Clinton promised in April that federal agencies would also report their toxic releases--and try to cut them 50% by 1999.

The government is betting that most companies will have the same reaction to emissions disclosure as St. Louis' Monsanto Co. did when it was forced to reveal its 1987 emissions for the first time. "We knew the numbers were high, and we knew the public wasn't going to like it," says Vice-Chairman Nicolas L. Reding. To fend off an outcry, Monsanto volunteered to slash its worldwide toxic air pollutants 90%. Since then, the chemical maker has spent $120 million on 250 projects, from installing new pollution-control gear to recycling toxic materials. It has cut its worldwide annual toxic air releases by nearly 55 million pounds. And it expects 1992 data, once compiled, to show it made its 90% goal.

HEFTY REPORTS. Many companies prefer voluntary efforts to legal mandates, saying this gives them latitude to spend their pollution-control money more effectively. Often, they find that preventing pollution costs less than cleaning it up. Pioneers such as 3M, Dow Chemical, and American Telephone & Telegraph have found that many such investments pay for themselves in reduced costs.

But that doesn't mean business would take kindly to an expansion of emissions reporting. Complying won't be cheap. According to the EPA, manufacturers already spend $346 million a year just to tote up and report their releases--before they invest a dollar to cut pollution.

Environmentalists aren't entirely thrilled with regulation-by-embarrassment, either. They complain that changes in reporting requirements make drops in releases seem larger than they are. For instance, a Kennecott-Utah Copper plant was ranked as the nation's fourth-largest polluter in 1987 because it reported mining emissions, which it was not required to do. When it stopped including those releases, its numbers improved dramatically. Overall, the EPA says, about half of the reported improvement is from such changes.

Even so, the real declines in emissions are so large that the EPA considers the program a resounding success. "We could never have gotten here so fast" with regulation, says David J. Sarokin of the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention & Toxics. Indeed, more than 1,000 companies have signed up for a program under which manufacturers promise to cut emissions of 17 high-priority chemicals 33% by 1992 and 50% by 1995. Sarokin says more than 200 have already met their 1995 goals. When it comes to cutting pollution, generating goodwill--and avoiding negative publicity--can be powerful motivators.

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