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April 28, 2008

The Toxic 100: New Report on Polluting Companies Hopes to Empower Communities and Shareholders
    by Francesca Rheannon

Index of top corporate air polluters updated in new report from researchers at University of Massachusetts.

SocialFunds.com -- Better living through chemistry” was the famed slogan of E.I. du Pont de Nemours (ticker: DD), but the company tops the list of most toxic polluting corporations operating in the US, according to a just-released report from the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts. The Toxic 100 index updates a previous version released in 2005.

It’s got plenty of company: some of the most famous brands in the world also top the list. Following on Dupont’s heels are Nissan, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Bayer (Bayer), and Dow Chemical (DOW).

Free
SRI Mutual Funds Guide“It remains to be seen whether DuPont will still be high on the list when the next Toxic 100 Index is released. The Louisville, KY plant responsible for more than half of its Toxic 100 score (due to its large emission of the highly carcinogenic chemical chloroprene) is now closed, but its operations were moved to La Place, LA. That prompted concerns by the United Steel Workers Union the hazard was not being reduced, but merely being moved.

According to a statement to SocialFunds.com by DuPont spokesperson Lori Captain, the company had already reached a goal of reducing air carcinogen emissions by 92% in 2004 and plans to reduce them by another 50% by 2015.

However, interpreting what that really means isn’t easy. Were those reductions mostly of highly carcinogenic compounds, or less hazardous chemicals? Did the reductions occur in a facility in or near a large city where potentially many thousands could be exposed or in a sparsely populated rural area? What track could a given chemical’s plume follow when released? Would it be a Bhopal-like disaster—you’d certainly want 92% reductions, or more, in that case—or a release with low risk of actual harm?

Those are questions PERI’s Corporate Toxics Information Project researchers tackled in their new report. They took data from the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), which records only the total pounds of a chemical’s release from a facility. Then they matched it to Risk Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI) and prevailing wind data to come up with a weighted index showing the impact of toxic releases on the health of those exposed in surrounding communities.

Since a facility reporting an environmental release may have a different name than its parent company, the researchers also matched firms to owners. For example, Angus Chemical Company reported significant releases of the chemical 2-nitropane, known to cause cancer and suspected of a host of other serious health hazards. Dow Chemical is the parent company. “It’s important for shareholders to know who’s responsible,” PERI’s Corporate Toxics Information Project co-director Michael Ash told SocialFunds.com.

The goal of The Toxic 100 is to give stakeholders “right-to-know” (RTK) information needed to evaluate risks, whether health risks to residents or financial risks to managers and shareholders of companies. The right to information about environmental hazards was codified into law in 1986 in response to the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, which killed more than 15,000 people and injured up to 100,000.

However, in recent years the U.S. government has tightened access to such information, citing terrorism concerns and fears that reporting requirements are too “burdensome” for companies.

Restricting access to chemical release information could threaten continued progress made in reducing toxic air pollution since the RTK law was enacted, Ash says. Describing The Toxic 100 as an “environmental integrity project,” Ash said PERI hoped it would increase pressure on the EPA to have more effective monitoring and control.

The report has made several improvements over the 2005 version. Foreign firms operating in the US are included for the first time, including Bayer and Nissan (NSANY) in the top five polluters. (In a statement to SocialFunds.com, Nissan spokesperson Fred Standish said that “inaccurate reporting” was the reason the company received the score it did in the Toxics 100 index and that revision of the data would “decrease Nissan’s ranking, perhaps to the point of being dropped entirely from the list.”)

Visitors to the report’s website can find out what went into each company’s score, such as the names and locations of reporting facilities, the chemicals released, and how toxic they are. The site also features a “look-up tool” giving users access to information on all 7,000 companies in the EPA database used by the researchers.

The authors hope that by using a consumer, market-oriented approach, The Toxic 100 will help stakeholders such as residents, shareholders and managers of companies, workers and unions, and consumers concerned about toxics in products or used in their production, create incentives for companies to have more accurate reporting. Ash told SocialFunds.com, “Our aim is not to name and shame, but to improve corporate environmental performance.”

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