Week of 7/25/2004

Dear EarthTalk: How can I find out which companies may be polluting my community?

—Mike Butler, Houston, TX

While information about pollutants has been publicly available in the U.S. since passage of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986, the public was not able to access it easily until the advent of the Internet, which now makes the research quite easy.

The easiest-to-use source of such information is Scorecard, a free online service provided by the non-profit environmental organization Environmental Defense. Steer your web browser to the Scorecard web page and cough up your zip code, and you"ll display a "Pollution Report Card" providing easy-to-read information on polluters and their pollutants in your locale. At the bottom of every Scorecard report are links to help you take action, with options ranging from e-mailing your governor to urge support for tougher air quality controls, to faxing the companies responsible for polluting your air or water.

If Scorecard can’t provide the information you need, other options exist. The Right-to-Know Network (RTKNet) provides free access to numerous government and scientific databases that track environmental trends. The service allows users to identify specific factories and their environmental threats, and also provides information on the demographics of affected communities.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made its data much more accessible to the general public via its own website, where users can find detailed information on specific types of pollutants and their environmental threats. The agency’s TRI Explorer, for instance ("TRI" stands for "toxic release inventory"), allows you to search from coast to coast by zip code, state or county for spills and accidental emissions of toxic chemicals.

For more general information on global environmental trends, the United Nations Environment Programme’s GEO Data Portal contains national, regional and global statistics, as well as maps and graphs covering themes such as fresh water, population, forests, emissions, climate and health trends. The site’s snappy technology displays data quickly in several user-friendly formats.

CONTACTS: Scorecard, www.scorecard.org; Right-to-Know Network, (202) 234-8494, www.rtknet.org; EPA Toxic Release Inventory Program, (202) 566-0250, www.epa.gov/tri; United Nations Environment Programme’s GEO Data Portal, http://geodata.grid.unep.ch.

Dear EarthTalk: What does "dolphin-safe tuna" mean, and how can I make sure that the tuna I buy is "dolphin-safe"?

—Charlie Vestner, San Francisco, CA

Biologists estimate that, since the beginning of large-scale commercial fishing in the late 1950s, more than 10 million dolphins have been drowned when inadvertently snared in the huge underwater driftnets meant to catch tuna and other fish. Driftnets, which can extend 50 miles as they are left to drag overnight, are indiscriminate killing tools often referred to as "walls of death." In addition to dolphins, large numbers of whales, sharks and other non-target species die every day in driftnets. The industry refers to these as "by-catch" and they are usually just tossed back overboard.

Driftnet fishing has been illegal in American waters since passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972. Yet seafood companies were able to source their products from fishing fleets in other countries not subject to U.S. law. By the late 1980s, fishing fleets around the world were deploying some 30,000 miles of netting daily to meet a steadily growing demand for seafood.

After public outcry over the needless killing of dolphins, Congress amended the MMPA in 1990 to establish a "dolphin-safe" labeling system so consumers could find tuna caught without the use of driftnets. Meanwhile, the U.N. followed suit in 1993 by instituting a global moratorium on driftnet fishing. Biologists estimate that these measures have saved millions of dolphins over the last decade.

However, since the early 1990s the U.S. government has gradually been weakening the standards for which companies can use the "dolphin-safe" label on their cans. In 1995, the World Trade Organization pressured the Clinton administration to lift its embargo on tuna from Mexico and other countries less concerned about the harmful effects of driftnet fishing. The Bush administration is currently seeking to further weaken dolphin protection efforts by allowing for the importation of driftnet-caught tuna as long as fishermen see no visual evidence of dolphin snaring while harvesting their catches.

While the U.S. government’s definition of "dolphin-safe" may not mean what it used to, the top three American tuna sellers—Starkist, Bumblebee and Chicken of the Sea—have vowed to avoid distribution and sale of tuna from fishing fleets that use driftnets. And according to Defenders of Wildlife, a number of major grocery store chains—including A&P, Albertson"s, IGA, Kmart, Publix, Safeway and Walmart—stock only dolphin-safe tuna. Meanwhile, restaurant chains such as Subway, Carl’s Jr., Olive Garden and Red Lobster serve only dolphin-safe tuna. Tuna consumers who stick to these brands, stores and eating establishments will know their lunch did not cause hundreds of needless dolphin deaths.

CONTACTS: Defenders of Wildlife Save-the-Dolphins Campaign, (202) 682-9400, www.defenders.org/wildlife/new/dolphins.html; Earth Trust, (808) 261-5339, www.earthtrust.org; Starkist, (800) 252-1587, www.starkist.com/faqs.html; Bumble Bee, www.bumblebee.com/faq.jsp; Chicken of the Sea, www.chickenofthesea.com/dolphin_safe.aspx.