How To Get Industry To Clean Up On Its Own

It was an afterthought when Congress passed it, but a provision tacked on to the 1986 Superfund law is proving to be one of the most effective environmental laws on the books. It doesn't tell industry to slash emissions to a certain level. Nor does it force companies to use specific technology. The law just requires manufacturers to make inventories of the toxic chemicals they keep on hand and to tell the public how much of the stuff they release into the environment.

But the disclosures are having far more impact than anyone imagined. The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to soon release data showing that, because of the law, companies have voluntarily cut their emissions. Accounting gimmicks may inflate the cuts, but the record is remarkable.

The government is getting results without the kind of strict, command-and-control regulations it has imposed on business in the past. Indeed, companies have remarkable freedom to cut emissions any way they want. Often they are doing so by reducing the amount of chemicals used at the front end of production--the best way to cut pollution.

Why are companies reducing pollution on their own? One reason is the bad publicity that large toxic emissions create. Companies don't want to be bad neighbors. Nor do they want reputations as polluters that would make it easier for opponents to thwart efforts to expand to new sites. Pressure from community activists also plays a role. But the fact is that companies are moving ahead without a specific government mandate to do so. If the EPA is going to impose further regulations to cut pollution, the disclosure strategy is a model to follow.