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Using the Toxic Release Inventory to Build Power in Communities

2012 May 17

By Erin Heaney

When Congress created the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), they intended for communities to have access to information about what was happening at the facilities in their neighborhoods. But until very recently, in the neighborhood we live in, many folks didn’t know the database existed and others didn’t have access to computers or know how to use them.

My organization, the Clean Air Coalition, was founded by residents in Tonawanda, NY who suspected that their pervasive health problems were linked to the industrial plants in their neighborhoods. There are 53 industrial facilities in Tonawanda, which is the highest concentration of air-regulated facilities in the state.

We have built power by developing grassroots leaders who run campaigns that advance environmental justice in Western New York. For example, in March we trained our membership on how to use the TRI. We spent the first half of the training learning about history of TRI and about how it was through communities standing up and saying that they needed more information about the environmental conditions in their communities that led to the creation of the TRI. Our members learned who reports to TRI, as well as when and how the data is verified. Afterward, we headed over to the computer lab to learn how to use the EPA TRI tool myrtk.epa.gov. Our members dug into the data for their neighborhoods and learned which companies were polluting, what they were emitting and what the health effects of those emissions were.

Their reactions were powerful. One member said, “I’m sick to my stomach;” another said, “This makes me angry and makes me want to do something about it.” Folks left the training ready to recruit more of their neighbors to push for emissions reductions from companies and policymakers.

The training took place during the Coalition’s campaign to ensure the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (NYS DEC) air monitors remained up and running. The training educated members about what was in their back yards and motivated them to advocate for air monitoring in the community. In the end, our work paid off and the campaign successfully resulted in a commitment from the NYS DEC to keep the monitors up and running for another two years.

At our office we have a saying: “Knowledge isn’t power. Power is power.” While access to information alone doesn’t make change, providing people with information about what’s happening in their neighborhoods is an essential piece of building power in environmental justice communities.

About the author: Erin Heaney is the Executive Director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, a grassroots organization that develops community leadership to win campaigns that advance public health and environmental justice. She has trained hundreds of grassroots leaders and won campaigns that have resulted in significant emissions reductions from some of the region’s largest polluters.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. Kathie Capozzi permalink
    May 19, 2012

    I am a member of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, I had the oppurtunity to take the TRI class in May 2012. It was very informative and I learned about the toxins that were making our community sick in Tonawanda and the surrounding neighborhoods. There are 53 industrial facilities in Tonawanda, which many of the toxic air emmissions are making us sick! There is a high percentage of cancers, blood disorders, lung diseases, auto-immune disorders, miscarriages, reproductive and birth defects, neurological disorders, and learning disorders in children. No one should have to breathe Toxic air, we all deserve the Right to breathe clean air and the Clean Air Act of 1971 should be honored no matter where you live, work and play as a family! Industrial facilities should protect their workers health and be community friendly. I am “sick and tired” of those who are not being responsible employers and abiding by the Clean Air Act, it’s 40 years when are they going to put their profits into a healthy enviroment for the People!

    • Kathie Capozzi permalink
      May 19, 2012

      I am a member of the Clean Air Coalition of W.N.Y., I had the oppurtunity to take the TRI class in May 2012. It was very informative and I learned about the toxins that were making our community sick in Tonawanda and the surrounding neighborhoods. There are 53 industrial facilities in Tonawanda, which many of the toxic air emmisions are making us sick! There is a high percentage of cancers, blood disorders, auto-immune disorders, miscarriages, reproductive and birth defects, neurological disorders, lung disease,and learning disorders in children. No one should breathe toxic air, we all deserve the right to breathe clean air and the Clean Air Act of 1971 should be honored no matter where you live, work and play! Industrial facilities should protect their workers health and be community friendly! I am “sick and tired” of those who are not being responsible employers and abiding by the Clean Air Act! It’s been a law for 40 years, when are they going to put their profits into a healthy enviroment for the “people” and not in their pockets!

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