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The Right to Know and the Fight Against Toxic Elements: The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986

Motta, Bernardo H.
Committee Members: 
Dr. Mark Littmann
December 2009

Abstract: This dissertation investigates the historical development of the right-to-know concept in the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-know Act (EPCRA) of 1986. It starts with the use of words during the American Revolution, words capacious or general enough to later include the modern right-to-know idea. It also traces the real emergence of the right-to-know concept during the Cold War years of the 1950s and 1960s, including the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966. Some of the limitations of the FOIA are discussed here, limited as it was and is by nine broad "exemptions" to the release of information by the federal Executive Branch. This study deals with an important legislative response to environmental disasters and near-disasters, with the aid of the Anti-Toxic and Environmental Justice movements of the late 20th century and ending with the enactment of EPCRA in 1986 and its effects in subsequent decades. This historical account also provides a brief analysis on how the legislation based on the right-to-know principle opened opportunities for the field of communication, especially environmental risk communication. EPCRA was the first federal law in the United States to fully embrace the right-to-know approach to public policy, also known as regulation through revelation. The right-to-know approach is based on the ideas of self-governance and public participation in the decision-making process. EPCRA has served as a model for more than 80 countries, which adopted laws based on the right-to-know principle in different levels since EPCRA‘s enactment.