U.S. Congress Requires Governments to Inform the Public About Toxic Pollutants Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 required federal, state, and local governments and industry to work together to keep the public informed about toxic chemicals and to develop plans to deal with emergencies related to toxic substances.

Summary of Event

Enacted in 1986 as part of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act, Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (1986) the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) was passed to increase public awareness of the nature and extent of hazardous and toxic substances in communities and to require governmental emergency planning and notification. Emergency planning The law was enacted after the accidental release of chemicals at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, Bhopal disaster (1984) India, claimed thousands of lives in 1984. Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (1986) Pollution;legislation [kw]U.S. Congress Requires Governments to Inform the Public About Toxic Pollutants (Oct. 17, 1986) [kw]Congress Requires Governments to Inform the Public About Toxic Pollutants, U.S. (Oct. 17, 1986) [kw]Public About Toxic Pollutants, U.S. Congress Requires Governments to Inform the (Oct. 17, 1986) [kw]Toxic Pollutants, U.S. Congress Requires Governments to Inform the Public About (Oct. 17, 1986) [kw]Pollutants, U.S. Congress Requires Governments to Inform the Public About Toxic (Oct. 17, 1986) Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (1986) Pollution;legislation [g]North America;Oct. 17, 1986: U.S. Congress Requires Governments to Inform the Public About Toxic Pollutants[06190] [g]United States;Oct. 17, 1986: U.S. Congress Requires Governments to Inform the Public About Toxic Pollutants[06190] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 17, 1986: U.S. Congress Requires Governments to Inform the Public About Toxic Pollutants[06190] [c]Environmental issues;Oct. 17, 1986: U.S. Congress Requires Governments to Inform the Public About Toxic Pollutants[06190] Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;environmental policy Dole, Bob Stafford, Robert T.

Congress decided that legislation was needed to prevent similar accidents in the United States. As a first step toward establishing an inventory of all the toxic chemicals used, stored, and disposed of in the United States, EPCRA made it mandatory for every owner and operator of a facility containing hazardous substances to register the information officially. Each state governor was required to establish a state emergency response commission (SERC), which was in turn responsible for designating emergency planning districts and appointing local emergency planning committees (LEPC) for each district; local governments were made responsible for the preparation and implementation of emergency plans. The state committees, whose members were required to have technical experience in emergency response, were to supervise and coordinate the local communities. Under EPCRA, the state committees were also responsible for establishing procedures for receiving and processing requests for information and for designating an official information coordinator.

EPCRA stipulated that the state committees designate the local districts within nine months of the law’s passage. Each local committee was to reflect, as far as possible, those segments of the community with an interest in emergency planning. Each was to have representatives from local environmental and community groups; transportation, law-enforcement, civil defense, and firefighting agencies; health departments and hospitals; broadcast and print media; and owners and operators of facilities using hazardous substances. Finally, each local committee was required to prepare an emergency plan (to be reviewed annually), establish provisions for public notification of committee activities, and hold public meetings to discuss the emergency plan. EPCRA permitted state committees to revise their designations and appointments, and local citizens could petition the state committees to modify the membership of local committees. The law also identified the conditions under which facilities were to notify the local committee and the state commission in the event that a toxic substance had been released in an amount exceeding the threshold quantity established for that substance.

The local emergency planning committee was required under EPCRA to complete an emergency plan; evaluate the need for resources to develop, implement, and exercise the plan; and determine if additional resources were necessary. The local committee was made responsible for identifying the facilities that were subject to EPCRA, the routes used to transport hazardous substances, and any additional facilities that might pose risks because of their proximity to facilities with hazardous substances. The plan was to contain the methods and procedures that facility owners and operators and local emergency and medical personnel were to follow in responding to releases of toxic substances. A community emergency coordinator and facility emergency coordinators were to be appointed to implement the plan. The plan was also to include the methods for determining when a release occurred, the area and population affected by such a release, the community’s available emergency equipment and facilities, and the names of people responsible for operating the equipment and facilities. Training programs for local emergency response and medical personnel were also called for, as well as methods and schedules for exercising the emergency plan.

Once the plan had been completed by the local district, the local planning committee was to submit it to the state emergency response commission for review. The commission could make further recommendations. A regional response team established under EPCRA could also review the plan, but the law specified that reviews were not to delay implementation of a plan.

All owners of facilities subject to EPCRA requirements were required to notify the state emergency response commission for the state in which each facility was located. Notification of a release or anticipation of a release of an extremely hazardous substance was to be made to the local emergency planning committee. Notification would include the chemical name or identity of the substance to be released and identify whether the material was an extremely hazardous substance. Notification also had to include indication of any health effects that were anticipated from the release and, if appropriate, medical advice for exposed individuals, as well as what precautions were required as a result of the release. Facilities could also be required to provide information to health professionals upon request.

EPCRA also provided appropriations for training and authorized federal officials who were already carrying out existing federal programs for emergency training when EPCRA was enacted to provide education programs for federal, state, and local employees in hazard mitigation, emergency preparedness, fire prevention and control, disaster response, long-term disaster recovery, national security, technological and natural hazards, and emergency processes.

Finally, EPCRA required that owners and operators of plants and facilities that had to provide a material data safety sheet for a hazardous chemical under the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970) to submit a copy of the sheet for each hazardous chemical to the appropriate local emergency planning committee, state emergency response commission, and fire department with jurisdiction over the facility. The inventories were also to be made available to the general public.


Industry officials objected strongly to the act’s requirements that companies submit information on the chemicals they use. Often, the identity of these chemicals was considered to be a trade secret. Industry officials argued that if information submitted to government agencies was made available to the general public, the government should not be permitted to require the submission of information that qualified as a trade secret. As a consequence, EPCRA included a provision that facilities could withhold information upon demonstrating that it constituted a trade secret.

EPCRA provided for both criminal and civil penalties for individuals and organizations found to be in violation of the law. The EPA could assess administrative penalties as high as $25,000 per day per violation for the first incident, and up to $75,000 per day for subsequent violations. EPCRA also authorized the use of citizen suits, which, for example, allowed victims of toxic dumping to bring lawsuits against those proven to be responsible. Civil actions could be brought by state or local authorities against a facility owner or operator for failing to submit a material data safety sheet, a follow-up emergency notice, or an inventory form, or for failing to comply with any of the regulations. Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (1986) Pollution;legislation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arbuckle, J. Gordon, Timothy A. Vanderver, Jr., and Paul A. J. Wilson. SARA Title III Law and Regulations. Rockville, Md.: Government Institutes, 1989. Provides a complete guide to all provisions included in the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berger, Donald A., and Christopher Harris. A Guide to Emergency Preparedness and Community Right-to-Know. New York: Executive Enterprises, 1988. Useful resource for individuals interested in participating in state or local emergency planning committees. Provides comprehensive information on the 1986 SARA law, particularly Title III.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DeLong, James V. Out of Bounds, Out of Control: Regulatory Enforcement at the EPA. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2002. Brief volume presents a strong critique of the Environmental Protection Agency’s record of enforcing federal environmental laws.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grad, Frank. Treatise on Environmental Law. New York: Matthew Bender, 1994. Comprehensive volume on environmental law is cited frequently by judges in U.S. legal cases. Gives the complete text of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986, including the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, with commentary and the legislative history of EPCRA.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lowry, George G., and Robert C. Lowry. Right-to-Know and Emergency Planning. Chelsea, Mich.: Lewis, 1988. Presents an analysis of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 along with legislative history of how the act was proposed and passed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sirianni, Carmen, and Lewis Friedland. Civic Innovation in America: Community Empowerment, Public Policy, and the Movement for Civic Renewal. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Scholarly work examines community action and civic renewal. Chapter 3, on civic environmentalism, includes discussion of EPCRA.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stoloff, Neil. Regulating the Environment: An Overview of Federal Environmental Laws. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana, 1991. Provides a detailed analysis of Superfund (as amended), EPCRA, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Clean Air Act. Recommended reading as a primer on environmental laws.

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