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Give Corporate Polluters a Break

February 05, 1996
By: Lara Hearnburg
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Attracting new business to Missouri is the main argument supporters raise for legislation that would allow businesses to hide internal information about their violations of environmental laws.

The Senate Commerce Committee is considering several proposals concerning how to handle information a company uncovers about the company's own violations of environmental regulations.

One approach would be to grant the company total "privilege" which would prevent the information from ever being used against the company in enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.

The other approach has been sponsored by Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis County.

As an alternative, Goode has proposed a 90-day grace period during which the state would be blocked from taking action against the company - to give the company time to correct the problems itself.

While his proposal would provide an incentive for a business to investigate environmental problems, Goode argues that giving those records total privilege goes too far.

"Privileged" documents are given the same legal status as evidence from a lawyer-client relationship. Once a document has been classified as privileged, it cannot be used against the company in a court of law, and can only be accessed with a judge's approval.

"Privilege [status] goes beyond normal confidentiality," he said. "It means that no one can get the records." Goode said that the confidential status provided in the other two bills protects trade secrets without allowing companies to hide information.

The record-privilege is in legislation sponsored by Sen. Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau.

Kinder said that making the records privileged would encourage new businesses to come to Missouri. A bill similar to this bill was recently passed in Illinois.

"Businesses are taking this into account," Kinder said. "The increased economic activity that we see [in Illinois] is in part related to this measure."

Kinder also said that the Illinois measure was supported by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Audubon Council lobbyist Scott Pennman said that new business is not the most important issue.

"Primarily," he said, of Kinder's bill, "It's an issue of access to information."

Pennman said that this bill would deny citizens the right to gain information about businesses' environmental policies and actions.

Sen. Larry Rohrbach, R-California, offers a different argument for making the records privileged.

Rohrbach said, during the Committee's discussion of the bills, that making records confidential would discourage companies from performing environmental audits. He said that if the records were not classified as privileged, there would be more lawsuits against Missouri businesses.

Rohrbach asked, "Do you want a clean environment or do you want to be able to sue people?"