Using the Toxic Release Inventory to Build Power in Communities

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.