RTK Net - An Internet Resource for Workers

by Luis Vazquez, MPH

International Union, UAW, Health & Safety Department,

Detroit, MI

copyright, 1999

Do you work with toxic chemicals at your plant ?  Do you live next to or near a industrial facility belching out mysterious toxic chemical vapors ?  Want to know more about what you are being exposed to?  Here’s a useful resource you won’t want to miss.  The Right-to-Know network ( RTK Net ) provides publicly available information to union members, community groups, and others who want to know what industrial facilities are claiming to discharge up their stacks or ship out as hazardous waste.

RTK Net is an on-line computer network containing great volumes of data which industry must provide to the US Environmental Protection Agency on a periodic basis.  The information provided by industry is made accessible by telephone (modem) or the Internet anytime, anywhere around the world, and best of all - RTK Net makes access to the information free of charge.  The U.S. EPA maintains a similar search engine on the EPA website (http://www.epa.gov), with many of the same databases available.  However, the RTK Net website is much easier to use.

When you log on to RTK Net via the World Wide Web, or via their dial-up phone number in Washington, D.C., their easy-to-use search software allows you to dig through numerous databases to find valuable data which may help you evaluate environmental conditions in your community, or perhaps the plant you work at.  A search can be conducted for a particular workplace, a geographical area or zip code, or by Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) Code.

A geographical mapping program is available to be downloaded to PCs, to enable interested parties to plot out visually where facilities are located, thereby allowing individuals to estimate the hazardous chemical risks to particular communities.  Many community groups have used this mapping program, along with U.S. Census and housing data, to outline Environmental Justice concerns.  Frequently, facilities which use and discharge hazardous chemicals, and the dumps where hazardous chemicals are disposed of, end up being located in communities of color or communities where poverty and lack of political power are prominent.

Combining some of the information gathered from RTK-Net with another computer program called CAMEO, could be a very powerful tool for workers and community groups.  CAMEO allows the user to create a “plume map”, which would show what are the potential results from a release of a toxic chemical.  The user would enter into CAMEO the physical location of a plant, chemical names and quantities being released, air temperatures, wind speed, and a few other factors, and CAMEO will show graphically where the chemical is likely to go, and how much time it would take for the chemicals to dissipate.  Emergency planners (who sit on Local Emergency Planning Committees - LEPC’s) use this computer program to define what to prepare for should a chemical release happen in their area of jurisdiction.

Also available on RTK Net are more than 300 New Jersey Department of Health Hazardous Substance Factsheets, which are an incredible resource for workers and community groups who want to know more details about particular chemicals they may find listed on Toxic Release Inventory reports.  New Jersey factsheets can also be compared with information found on Material Safety Data Sheets.  Many times people have found the information on these New Jersey factsheets to be more complete than what is found on MSDSs.  They are much easier to read and understand, since they are written in layman’s terms, they are consistently formatted (you will find the same type of information in the same place on each New Jersey Factsheet), and they have a hazard summary on the front page, so there’s no need to dig through the factsheet for the essential information which may be necessary during an emergency.

RTK Net started in 1989 in support of the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA), which mandated public access to the federally managed Toxic Release Inventory.  The on-line service is operated by the Unison Institute and OMB Watch, two nonprofit organizations, and is funded by various government agencies, foundations, and individual contributions.

Of particular use and interest to union members and community organizations are the following environmental databases:

            TRI ( EPA Toxic Release Inventory ) - For over 300 toxic chemicals (the          EPA recently expanded the number of chemicals to be reported on), this        database gives maximum chemical amounts stored on site, and information about how much is released to the environment, either       routinely or as a result of spills or other incidents.  Knowing about maximum amounts on-site can help people prepare for a “worst-case scenario”.  It can help an emergency response planning group decide if          there is enough response equipment and personnel to deal with an   emergency involving the chemical(s) in question. 

            Facilities must report their releases of toxic chemicals to the TRI if the             following four criteria are met:

            1) They must be a manufacturing facility (primary SIC code in 20-39);

            2) They must have the equivalent of 10 or more full-time workers;

            3) They must either manufacture or process more than 25,000 lbs of the          chemical or use more than 10,000 lbs during the year;

            4) The chemical must be on the TRI list of 350 specific toxic chemicals or       chemical categories.  This list was recently expanded by the EPA.

            One drawback to using TRI is that not all, or even most, toxic chemical             pollution is reported in the Toxic Release Inventory.  Another drawback is        that only a limited number of hazardous chemicals are on the TRI    reporting list.

            PCS ( EPA Water Permit Compliance System ) - this will tell you what             your employer/neighborhood plant is supposed to be testing for when they discharge chemicals to waterways or sewers.  Also, this database       will tell you if the company is in compliance with their water discharge permit, and any enforcement actions taken by authorities.

            ERNS ( EPA Emergency Response Notification System ) - this database      tells you which companies have filed a report when they have spilled or           released a chemical on an emergency basis, that is, if they file a report at all.  This information is especially useful when critiquing a company’s   preparedness for potential future chemical release incidents by finding             ways to prevent similar events from occurring.

            BRS ( EPA Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Biennial Reporting      System ) - this database tells you types and quantities of hazardous     chemicals shipped offsite from a facility, and lists the disposal facilities        where they supposedly end up.

            DOCKET ( EPA Civil Litigation ) - this database identifies companies who    are or have been sued in court for illegal environmental activities, by the          US Department of Justice on behalf of the EPA.  This database does not    include information about criminal cases, only civil suits brought against          companies.

            CERCLIS ( EPA CERCLIS Superfund Information System ) - CERCLIS is     the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and      Liability Information System.  This database contains information about         hazardous waste sites, all potential Superfund sites, as well as             “Proposed” and  “Final” sites that have been listed on the National    Priority List (NPL).  This database contains records on about 40,000   sites covered by CERCLA.   CERCLA (enacted in 1980), and it’s        amendments (SARA - enacted in      1986) are US Government Acts which       established broad authority for the government to respond to     problems posed by the release, or threat of release, of hazardous      substances, pollutants, or contaminants.   CERCLA also imposed liability       on those responsible for releases and provided the authority for the     government to undertake enforcement and abatement action      against responsible parties.

How can you use the information contained in these databases?

Union members can use these databases to find out about their company’s environmental record, if one exists.  The potential for hazardous chemical releases can be analyzed by workers and community groups.  Participation in emergency response and evacuation planning is more effective when workers and community members take an active role and have the necessary information at hand.  For instance, if a company is required to file annual Toxic Release Inventory reports with the EPA, they must also include information about maximum quantities of TRI chemicals they store on site.  Workers can then use this detail to analyze a company’s preparedness for a “worst-case scenario”, by having the proper emergency response equipment on-site, by having a properly trained emergency response team, and by having a workable emergency response or evacuation plan.  Workplace emergencies involving hazardous chemicals are covered by various OSHA standards in addition to EPA requirements.

Union Health & Safety Representatives, International Representatives, and Industrial Hygienists can use the data to be better prepared when inspecting a workplace, and thereby helping these worker representatives to better represent the union members.  Information from the various RTK Net databases can be used as a basis for asking questions about industrial operations, storage and handling procedures for hazardous chemicals, worker health and safety training, and other job aspects.

Community groups and citizens can use the data to identify and learn more about potential chemical hazards posed by facilities located in their communities, and then enter into partnerships with businesses to bring about constructive changes, such as reductions in the use of toxic chemicals.  As a result of public pressure and use of the environmental databases, one of the impacts of putting this information on-line has been to get companies to voluntarily reduce the amounts of toxic chemical emissions from their facilities.

Another use of the information on RTK Net is for labor, environmental, and community groups who would like to ensure that companies are in compliance with environmental reporting requirements.  Companies which are not in compliance with EPA regulations are subject to substantial fines.  An example of non-compliance is when a company fails to report entirely, or underreports discharges of TRI chemicals.  Some environmental groups have been successful in getting companies to report their discharges, and even to reduce toxic chemical usage, just by threatening to sue the companies for not complying with federally mandated reporting requirements.

Union organizers may find environmental information on their organizing prospects useful by giving some background that would normally not be accessible, and which companies certainly would like to withhold. 

What are the potential pitfalls?

If a workplace is smaller, or does not use quantities of hazardous chemicals which exceed reporting thresholds, there may be no environmental record on RTK-Net or the EPA website.  Another dead-end may occur when a company reports their environmental data under a parent company’s name rather than their own.  In this case, a geographical or SIC search would be better to conduct.

Having information, or access to information is one thing, being able to use it effectively is another.  Of course, any recording system could have erroneous information entered into it.  All of EPA’s chemical reporting schemes require companies to be honest and open about what they are reporting, but not all companies are.

Training in how to use the data garnered from RTK-Net would be useful, in addition to the user having a basic understanding of EPA rules and regulations.  Digging through EPA’s rules and regulations could be tedious and time consuming, and not a favorite activity for time-strapped union reps.  Data interpretation may require a specialist, but RTK-Net does provide a users manual on request, and will also provide some training and technical assistance.  Once you have data in hand, the EPA can be consulted directly regarding the meaning of the data.  Labor/environmental coalitions may find mutual benefits in conducting joint research into workplaces.

You should check out the RTK-Net website at the following URL:


If you want access to the data by directly dialing in with your modem, the telephone number is (202) 234-8570 (8,N,1)

RTK-Net’s phone number is (202) 234-8494, fax (202) 234-8584, and their mailing address is 1742 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., 20009

Examples of information downloaded from RTK Net

The first example is that of a 1993 Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) report on American Tape in Marysville, MI, UAW Local 1149.  This site was of particular interest since American Tape was identified as the second largest discharger of the flammable and toxic chemical toluene in the State of Michigan.  This facility would be a good candidate for toxic chemical use reduction, perhaps by switching to a water-based adhesive.


         search used- Facility name:   AMERICAN TAPE*

                      City:            MARYSVILLE

                      State:           MI

                      Year:            ALL

                      TRI ID:          ALL

                      Level of Detail: HIGH  

                      Output Type    : Text

Reporting Year: 1993


Facility Name: AMERICAN TAPE CO.

Address: 317 KENDALL AVE.    MARYSVILLE, MI  48040

County: ST CLAIR  Lat/Long: 0425304 / -822853

EPA ID: MID061862926  TRI ID: 48040MRCNT317KE

D&B Number: 103512893

Public Contact: JORDAN THOMPSON  Phone: (810) 364-9000

Primary SIC: 2671   

All SIC Codes: 2671

NPDES IDs: MI0039021           

Parent Company: NA  D&B #: NA

Year: 1993   EPA Region: 05


Breakdown of releases and waste generation (by chemical) follows:

Chemical Name: TOLUENE

CAS Number: 000108883             (Name: AMERICAN TAPE CO.)

Maximum Amount On Site: 100,000 - 999,999 LBS              (Year: 1993)

Medium        Release (lbs)    Destination or Method Used

------------  --------------   --------------------------

FUGITIVE AIR     299,716

STACK AIR       4,162,511


                                                       GRAFTON, OH

                                              USING: INCINERATION/THERMAL TREATMENT         

Total                    4,510,268

Generation of production-related waste in lbs  (On=on-site, Off=off-site)-

Year: (*=projected)     1992           1993             1994*             1995*

Rel. or Disp:           3,911,016    4,462,257      4,430,052      3,571,229

Recycled On:        16,944,571   16,303,027   17,113,141    17,455,404

Energy On:                     0                  0                   0              690,000

Treated Off:              28,842          48,041          52,170           43,260

Total:                   20,884,429    20,813,325    21,595,363    21,759,893

Non-production-related waste:             0 (accidental or remedial)

Total waste generated       :    20,813,325 (Production & Non-Production)

Production Ratio:   1.14

    "Rel. or Disp" above = quantity released on-site or disposed off-site

    "Energy" above   = quantity burned for energy recovery


CAS Number: N982                  (Name: AMERICAN TAPE CO.)

Maximum Amount On Site: 10,000 - 99,999 LBS                (Year: 1993)

Medium        Release (lbs)    Destination or Method Used

------------  --------------   --------------------------


                                                   GRAFTON, OH

                                           USING: INCINERATION/THERMAL TREATMENT         


                                                  CORUNNA ONTARIO, CANADA        

                                           USING: INCINERATION/INSIGNIFICANT FUEL VALUE  


                                                  GRAFTON, OH

                                           USING: INCINERATION/INSIGNIFICANT FUEL VALUE  


                                                  SMITHS CREEK, MI

                                       USING: LANDFILL/DISPOSAL SURFACE IMPOUNDMENT  

Total                    26,846

Generation of production-related waste in lbs  (On=on-site, Off=off-site)-

Year: (*=projected)     1992           1993          1994*          1995*

Treated Off:              29,675         26,769        25,350        22,400

Total:                        29,675         26,769        25,350        22,400

Non-production-related waste:             0 (accidental or remedial)

Total waste generated       :        26,769 (Production & Non-Production)

Production Ratio:   1.14

Totals for all chemicals for AMERICAN TAPE CO.

Releases and Transfers (in lbs) -

Fugitive air     :        299,716

Stack Air        :     4,162,511

Off-site Transfer:      74,887

Total            :        4,537,114                          (Year: 1993)

Amounts of production-related waste generated (in lbs, for current year)-

Released On-site or Disposed Off-site:      4,462,257

Recycled On-site                     :                16,303,027

Treated Off-site                     :                         74,810

Total Production-Related Waste       :      20,840,094

Total Non-Production-Related Waste   :                  0

Total Waste Generated                :            20,840,094

The second example is of an incident which occurred at EMS-Togo, a manufacturer of coatings, adhesives, and sealants located in Taylor, MI, UAW Local 157.  This example is important because of the potential for explosion or excessive worker exposure to the solvents Methyl Ethyl Ketone and acetone.  This company later discontinued manufacturing solvent-based adhesives.


         search used- Discharger:      EMS TOGO CORPORATION

                      City:            TAYLOR

                      County:          ALL

                      State:           MI

                      Year:            1990

                      Level of Detail: HIGH


Basic spill information-

Date: 04/16/1990  Time:   2300

Street: 20219 NORTH LINE RD    City: TAYLOR  State: MI  Zip:

Discharger information-


Street: 20219 NORTH LINE RD

City: TAYLOR   State: MI   Zip: 48180    

County: WAYNE    EPA Region: 05

Discharger Phone:                    2nd Phone:                 

Material spilled: METHYL ETHYL KETONE

Amount spilled: 260 GAL or 1,742 lbs

Material spilled: ACETONE

Amount spilled: 260 GAL or 1,716 lbs


Further information follows-

Environmental media involved (T/F or True/False)-

Air: T  Land: F  Water: F  Groundwater: F  Facility: F  Other: F

Waterway/other: ATMOSPHERE                             

Transport Mode: Fixed              Vehicle ID:                    

Causes of incident (T/F or True/False)-

Trans. accident: F   Equipment failure: F   Dumping: F   Unknown: F

Operator Error: F   Natural Phenomenon: F   Other cause: F

Event Description-




Action taken-NONE

How was spill found?: O (O=occured, D=discovered, P=planned)

Caller wanted confidentiality (T/F): F

Call received at-   Date: 04/17/1990  Time:   1604

The third example is of a Emergency Response Notification System (ERNS) report on Moeller Manufacturing in Livonia, MI, UAW Local 157.  This ERNS report indicates the manufacturer was allowing workers to dispose of drums of metalworking fluids on the site by puncturing drums and letting it seep into a drain - an illegal operation.  Inspection of this facility by UAW Health & Safety Department staff led to recommendations for improvement of working conditions.  When the company disregarded the recommendations, workers and the Local Union filed complaints with Michigan OSHA, which earned the company numerous citations for the very items the union pointed out.


search used- Discharger:      MOELLER*

City: LIVONIA      County: WAYNE           State: MI


Basic spill information-

Date: 08/22/1989  Time:   1430

Street: 12173 MARKET ST.                                                       

City: LIVONIA  State: MI  Zip:          

Discharger information-

Discharger: MOELLER MFG.   Type:  

Street: 12173 MARKET ST.

City: LIVONIA   State: MI   Zip:          

County: WAYNE   EPA Region: 05

Discharger Phone:                    2nd Phone:                 

Material spilled: DDM FLUID, COOLANT, OTHER

Amount spilled: 1 BBL or 350 lbs

Material spilled: TOXIC MATERIAL

Amount spilled: 0 UNK


Further information follows-

Environmental media involved (T/F or True/False)-

Air: F  Land: T  Water: T  Groundwater: F  Facility: F  Other: F

Waterway/other: STORM DRAIN                            

Transport Mode: Fixed              Vehicle ID: NONE               

Causes of incident (T/F or True/False)-

Trans. accident: F   Equipment failure: F   Dumping: T   Unknown: F

Operator Error: F   Natural Phenomenon: F   Other cause: F

Event Description-

DRUM DUMPING                                                           



Action taken-        NONE

Caller wanted confidentiality (T/F): F

Call received at-   Date: 08/22/1989  Time:   1430

Information gathered for this article comes from the RTK Net website, and US EPA web pages