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RIGHT TO KNOW Fact Sheet #1
Your Right to Know: Toxic Chemicals in the Community

Source: Environmental Action Foundation:
1525 New Hampshire Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20036

Love Canal. Times Beach. Bhopal. These names are synonymous with toxic destruction of families and communities. These well publicized environmental disasters focused attention on the startling lack of public knowledge regarding toxic chemicals used in our communities and released into the environment. Industrial irresponsibility and the failure of government to adequately protect its citizens from toxic threats are both testaments to the need for citizens to know about toxics in their communities. Only through knowledge of industrial use of toxics can citizens act in the interest of a clean and healthy environment.In response to the Bhopal tragedy and citizens' demand for knowledge regarding chemical hazards in their communities, Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right Know Act (Right to Know law) in 1986. The Right to Know law has the potential to reduce more toxic pollution than 20 years of ineffective environmental regulations.As the name implies, the two basic goals of the law are:

1. Emergency Planning: Local Emergency Planning Committees are required to develop emergency plans to respond to chemical spills, explosions, or other accidental releases.

2. Community Right To Know: Manufacturing facilities are required to disclose to the public those toxic chemicals that are used and released into the environment.


1. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is required to collect toxic release data and make it easily accessible to the public. The EPA must compile the toxic release reports into a Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). The Toxics Release Inventory database compiled by EPA is offered in public libraries throughout the country (at least one database in each county across the U.S.). The EPA also has primary responsibility for enforcing the Right to Know law.

2. States are required to set up State Emergency Response Commissions (SERC's) that are responsible for implementing the Right to Know law. SERC's collect and distribute Right to Know data and are required to set up Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs).

3. LEPC's are responsible for developing emergency plans and collecting and distributing various Right to Know data.Information submitted under Right to Know must be provided to any citizen upon request.


Section 304: Emergency NotificationCompanies that have had an accidental release of an extremely hazardous substance, such as a spill or explosion, that spreads the chemical beyond the boundaries of the facility, must report the incident immediately after the release to the LEPC and SERC. This is to ensure that appropriate measures can be taken to contain the problem area and evacuate the public if necessary. Companies must also issue a follow-up report, as soon as practicable, with the details of the accident to the SERC and LEPC. The follow-up reports must include the following:

1. Actions taken to respond to and contain the release

2. Any known or anticipated health risk associated with the release

3. Advice regarding medical attention necessary for exposed individuals

Section 311: Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) Companies that store more than 10,000 lbs. of a specified hazardous chemical (chemicals defined as hazardous by the Occupational Safety and Health Act [OSHA]) must either submit Material Safety Data Sheets or submit a list of hazardous chemicals to the SERC, LEPC, and local fire departments. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) describe health effects, fire hazards and treatment of individuals exposed to hazardous chemicals stored at the facility. (The reporting threshold for chemicals listed as an Extremely Hazardous Substance (EHS) is 500 pounds.)

Section 312: Emergency and Hazardous Chemical Inventory Forms Companies required to submit Material Safety Data Sheets under Section 311 must also submit Emergency and Hazardous Chemical Inventory Forms (called Tier I or Tier II Inventory Forms) under Section 312. Tier I and Tier II Inventory Forms document the location and quantity of chemicals at the facility. This is a helpful tool for firefighters and emergency personnel who must be able to quickly evaluate and respond to an industrial-related crisis. This information is important to citizens because it allows them to investigate what quantities and what types of chemicals are present at local facilities. Companies may choose to submit either Tier I or Tier II information.

Tier I Information

Tier I information is not very useful to citizens because the chemical specific names and quantities are not disclosed. Companies are only required to report a range of the amount of the hazardous chemical present as well as a brief description of the nature and general location of the hazardous chemical. (Ex. 1,000 - 9,999 lbs. of a flammable material stored in a tank in building 3.)

Tier II Information

Tier II forms provide more information on hazardous chemicals than Tier I forms. These forms are chemical-specific; they include the names of individual hazardous chemicals, the quantities and locations where they may be found at the facility, and their potential health and safety hazards. Tier II information is very helpful to citizens because it reveals exactly which chemicals are being used in addition to the information found on Tier I Forms.

Many companies only release Tier I inventory forms to the SERC. However, Tier II information may be obtained by writing a letter to the SERC requesting Tier II information from a particular facility. At the SERC's request, companies must file these additional forms with the SERC for public review.

Section 313: Toxic Chemical Release Forms Companies must publicly disclose their toxic releases into the air, land and water by submitting Toxic Release Inventory Forms (also called Form R's) annually to the SERC and U.S. EPA each year by July 1 for the previous year. Forms R's are required for approximately 320 toxic substances commonly released into the environment. (Chemicals are defined as toxic by the Office of Toxic Substances of the EPA.)Companies must report their releases if they meet all of the following criteria:

1.Fall within Standard Industrial Classification codes (SIC codes) 20-39 (meaning they are manufacturers)

2. Have 10 or more employees

3. Use more than 10,000 lbs. of a specified toxic chemical per year

4. Manufacture or process more than 25,000 lbs. of a specified toxic chemical per year

Section 324: Public Availability of Information

Every Emergency response plan, follow-up emergency notice, Material Safety Data Sheet, Tier I/II Inventory Form, and Toxic Release Inventory Form (Form R) required under the Right to Know law is available to the public from the SERC and/or LEPC. The contact person and phone number for every SERC can be obtained by contacting the Right to Know Hotline at 1-800-535-0202. Your SERC can provide you with your LEPC representative's name and phone number.

Section 326: Citizen Enforcement Authority

Citizens are authorized to sue facilities that have violated Right to Know reporting requirements established in sections 304, 311, 312 and 313 discussed above. Stiff penalties can serve as a deterrent to companies that are in violation with any of these sections. For example, violators of section 313 can be fined up to $25,000 per toxic chemical for each day that Form R's have not been submitted. Citizen suits can be used as a handle to negotiate toxics use reduction agreements with facilities violating the Right to Know act. (See Environmental Action Foundation's "How to Enforce the Right to Know law" fact sheet.)


In the short time the Right to Know law has been in effect, it has proven to be a powerful tool in the quest for toxics use reduction. Throughout the country, citizens have learned about toxic releases in their communities and have demanded a reduction in toxics usage by local facilities. By using their right to know, citizens can effectively mobilize to rid their communities of toxics hazards that affect workers, families and the right to a safe and healthy community.

Other Right to Know Fact Sheets Available:

For more information regarding the Right to Know Law and/or additional Fact Sheets contact:

Environmental Action Foundation:
1525 New Hampshire Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 745-4870

Source: RTK Net, Washington, DC

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