E-Gov Spotlight: EPA's Enforcement Database Gets Updated

by Leeann Sinpatanasakul, 11/5/2013

E-Gov Spotlights: Given the importance of websites and online tools to inform the public about major issues and government activities, the Center for Effective Government is publishing an ongoing series of articles to evaluate government's use of online technology. Each article explores the purpose of an agency's site or tool, its strengths and weaknesses, and offers recommendations on how their efforts might be enhanced.

On Oct. 23, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a beta 2.0 version of its enforcement and compliance web-based tool. The new version should make it easier for the public to find information on which facilities near their communities violate air, water, and pollution standards. The agency has requested user feedback as it continues to update and fine-tune the site, so we encourage readers to visit the website and provide comments on your experience to the agency.

Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) 2.0

The EPA launched the Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) in 2003, providing one-stop access to compliance data years ahead of other federal agencies. The web-based tool, which is updated monthly, has allowed the public to see how well facilities are complying with environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act. Website users can search for information on permits, environmental inspections, and enforcement actions, including violations and penalties, for more than 800,000 facilities nationwide. During ECHO's initial trial run in 2002-2003, the agency received thousands of e-mails from the public, praising the site for being a tool that will "encourage polluters to change their act" and make them more accountable to "the communities they harm."

Using the Online Tool

The new ECHO website provides the same information found in the previous database. It allows users to search for enforcement and compliance information on facilities in a particular community or review the performance of the all the facilities in a state. However, the new version is more user-friendly, has better tools for site visitors, and makes it easier for a user to find his or her way around the database.

The landing page of the original website has been redesigned, and it is now easier to find and use key search functions. The links that allow a user to search for facilities in a particular community, or to look up a particular facility, or to analyze trends, are now large, clickable graphic icons instead of small, text-based links. The new design gives the site a modern look and it makes browsing ECHO significantly easier on a tablet or a mobile device. The changes will compliment ECHO's mobile version, which is scheduled to launch in late 2013.

One of the most popular features of ECHO 2.0 is the "All Data Search," a powerful tool that allows users to search almost all of the data covered by ECHO (currently, drinking water data is not included). The search feature offers several different types of filters to help users locate the information most relevant to their needs. Users can pull up data on geographic location, a particular facility or industry sector, facilities with violations, or facilities inspected recently. Additionally, users can focus on environmental justice issues by narrowing their search to areas with a high percentage of non-white communities within the population. Users can examine watershed conditions or data from other EPA programs, such as the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) or Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program.

This search flexibility means a wider variety of users will be able to tailor their searches and find what they are looking for faster. Local citizen activist groups can conduct local, specific searches that focus on the local pollution and emissions information relevant to their community. Regional environmental coalitions can compile information from multiple states at a time (a feature not available under the previous search mechanism).

In conducting a search on facilities in Chicago, for example, users will receive information organized in a table regarding: whether facilities in Chicago had violations, any formal enforcement actions, penalties, days since their last inspection, and more. However, this compliance data includes all three major areas covered by the website – air quality, hazardous waste, and water quality. Currently, users can not limit their searches to compliance in a specific program area, but the EPA plans to add this feature in the future.

Other popular features of ECHO 2.0 include the Comparative Maps and the State Dashboards. EPA released both tools earlier this year in preparation for the new site launch. These tools allow users to compare state-by-state incidences of inspections, violations, penalties, and more based on federal air, water, or hazardous waste laws. The site shows a map of the United States with data from each state displayed. A timeline selector in the upper-right corner of the map tool also allows users to select any year from 2009 to 2013 to display state-by-state changes over the past five years.

The dashboard also offers users the opportunity to review the compliance data with visuals, presenting the data as a series of graphs. Graphs display the number of facilities, compliance evaluations, violations, high-priority violations, enforcement actions, and penalties from 2009 through 2013. Users can review all of the data at the national level or select a particular state. The dashboard is a better interface to review trends over time within the compliance data as it allows users to easily spot trends in the last five years and contextualize the information. While these graphs could be generated from the tables provided by the "All Data Search" by an experienced spreadsheet user, having the information displayed automatically online is a benefit to those unfamiliar with making graphs and saves time for those who are. The site allows the more experienced user to download the data into a CSV file, which is useful for those wanting to aggregate the data.

Finally, the tool provides good support and basic website services for users, such as comments/feedback, updates, and data alerts. EPA regularly updates the public via the site or e-mail alerts (anyone can sign up for e-mail alerts through the site) about any new changes made to the ECHO database. Data alerts also address potential issues that may cause information inaccuracies provided in ECHO.

Limits and Recommendations

Although the "All Data Search" on the updated ECHO site is a strong and flexible feature, it could be improved. The ability to filter by air, water, or hazardous waste information would allow users to narrow their results in ways that most would probably find helpful. Drinking water data should also be added to the library of information available for searches.

The website should also integrate explanations of terminology and better descriptors into the search features. Most members of the public won't immediately know what "synthetic minor facilities" are or understand what "facilities subject to informal enforcement" means. Incorporating the ability to obtain definitions and explanations without leaving the search results or map would help users understand what they are reviewing.

The ECHO data also has limitations unrelated to the website's design. The tool uses 1990 Census data in its Demographic Profile of the surrounding three-mile radius of a facility. This data is outdated and may present a misleading demographic profile of a particular city or county. To prevent misinformation, the EPA should update to the 2010 Census data, released in April 2011.

Another underlying data shortcoming is that the tool lists facilities only, but not facilities' parent companies. Users will probably want to examine patterns of noncompliance at facilities owned by the same parent company. This site will not help them do so; a user would have to do independent research identifying the affiliation of each individual facility separately and then aggregating each. This limitation also makes it difficult to match bad corporate actors with other databases, such as federal contracting records.

One final problem is related to ECHO's transition plan. Aside from the more general tools mentioned above, many of the more specific search features and database hubs are still hosted on the old ECHO website. EPA plans to launch updates to its more specific search engines throughout the course of 2014 but will take down the old ECHO website by the end of this month. Since some of the search features will not be available until mid or late 2014, this could reduce the ability of some users to find specific information. Although EPA plans to keep all of the information from its old website available throughout the transition, without reliable search engines, accessing the data most pertinent to one's needs could become difficult and tedious. Although improving the ECHO site was long overdue, a better solution would be to leave the old search engines in place and gradually move them offline as newer interfaces replace them.

Conclusion

The agency has not yet completed the modernization process planned for ECHO, and the new features are only a first step toward the many more improvements expected for the coming year. Yet already, the design and usability of the site has improved significantly. In 2014, EPA plans more improvements: users will be able to refine their results directly on the search screen, the agency will make more than five years of data available for analysis, and it will improve the tool's integration of enforcement/compliance data with pollutant loads. By 2015, the agency promises more data on "non-standard" Clean Water Act facilities, such as large animal feeding operations, and plans to provide links to information from documents, such as inspection reports and enforcement actions. All of these changes will provide the American people with a much more comprehensive and contextualized understanding of how the national government sets and enforces protective standards, and how private companies comply with – or ignore – these health and safety standards. As such, they are welcome advances in transparency.

As the agency moves forward with these changes, users should explore the changing site and contact the EPA with reactions, problems, and suggestions for further improvement.

Sofia Plagakis contributed to this article.