EPA Pushing Data Out to the Public

The Obama administration has made government transparency a high priority in its early months, and of all the federal agencies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appears to be making the quickest progress in turning rhetoric into action. Across a range of issues, the EPA is taking proactive steps to improve transparency, collecting and releasing to the public important environmental data needed to protect the environment and public health.

Much of this information is actively being pushed out to the public, whereas other releases are only made following lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. These actions, combined with instructions from the EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, to operate more openly, are a distinct change from agency policies during the last several years. However, it is still too early to determine whether these information disclosures comprise an agency-wide commitment to openness and engagement with the public.

TRI Early Release

Among the developments was the early release of Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data for 2008. Historically, the TRI data, which track the release or transfer of more than 650 toxic chemicals from facilities nationwide, were not available to the public until up to 14 months after the end of a reporting year. The data for 2008 were released Aug. 18 in a "raw" downloadable format and are expected to be finalized or "frozen" before the end of 2009. With the early release, EPA is encouraging data users to study and analyze the data on their own. EPA also is seeking public comments on its early data sharing policy.

This early data release follows action by Congress to restore TRI reporting levels that were scaled back in a controversial rulemaking during the Bush administration. The rulemaking had restricted the amount of toxic release information citizens and communities would receive from TRI and prompted a firestorm of criticism and more than 122,000 comments in opposition to the change in reporting levels.

Pesticides in Drinking Water

Atrazine, one of the most widely used herbicides in the United States, is toxic to humans and animals even at very low levels. It is also one of the most ubiquitous pesticides in streams and groundwater. A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) was critical of EPA's monitoring and notification system for atrazine contamination. NRDC acquired sampling data from EPA's atrazine monitoring program, but only after two FOIA requests and a lawsuit.

Shortly after the report was published, EPA announced the public release of the data that NRDC had sued to acquire. According to EPA, "As part of this [EPA’s] commitment to transparency and to enhance accessibility, EPA has posted complete atrazine monitoring program drinking water data gathered from 150 community water systems over the six-year period 2003 through 2008."

The agency has released two sets of atrazine data, one for ecological monitoring and one for drinking water monitoring. The accessibility and usability of the data sets online vary. To access the ecological data, one must navigate through the cumbersome Federal Register (The data are available in the public docket.). The drinking water raw data are available as Excel spreadsheets, and data are also presented in a summary form. The website also provides a basic explanation of the data and EPA's understanding of the health risks.

Missing are data visualization tools many open government advocates have been calling for from the Obama administration. Both The New York Times and NRDC provided maps, charts, and graphs interpreting the raw data for their readers. EPA has only provided links to spreadsheets.

School Air Pollution Monitoring

Earlier in 2009, EPA began a program to monitor the air quality around selected schools to identify areas where air pollutants are at dangerous levels. The program was developed in response to a USA Today report published late in 2008 that used publicly available pollution information to identify schools that might be at risk of dangerously high air pollution levels. Pressure from the public and Congress encouraged Jackson to take action. The results of the air monitoring are made available online as they are collected from monitoring sites.

Coal Ash Dump Sites

In December 2008, the failure of a retaining wall at a Tennessee dump site for wet coal ash – the toxic waste product from combustion of coal at power plants – caused more than one billion gallons of coal ash sludge to wash over hundreds of acres and flow into local waterways. The spill caused alarm over the possibility of additional catastrophic failures of similar dump sites.

In response, Jackson vowed to gather the information needed to issue a rule to bring these dump sites under federal regulation. A survey sent to hundreds of power plants around the country collected information on the location and inspection history of coal ash dump sites. Despite protests from the Department of Homeland Security, which viewed disclosing such information as a security threat, EPA published online a list of the highest-risk dumpsites identified through a survey to electric utilities nationwide.

On Aug. 28, in response to a FOIA request by several environmental groups, the agency released more detailed information about the impoundments. Of 584 impoundment units in 35 states, 194 have been given hazard ratings by the National Inventory of Dams. Several reporting utilities labeled portions of their responses as confidential trade secrets. Data on the inspection histories and size and capacity of impoundments were not disclosed by EPA. The agency stated that it will evaluate the claims of confidential business information and disclose the data that are not deemed to be legitimate trade secrets.

The agency plans to assess by year's end all 109 coal ash dump sites that have been assigned a high or significant hazard rating. With the data now available, public interest groups and individuals are able to evaluate dump sites in their communities and hold their state and federal officials accountable for ensuring the safety of the sites.

Recovery Act and Data.gov

As part of the Recovery Act, EPA distributed more than $7 billion, mostly for assistance with water quality and infrastructure programs. The agency's transparency efforts also extend to these spending data. Expenditures are now presented in an interactive map depicting total Recovery Act obligations and gross outlays by EPA at the national and state levels. EPA claims that in the future, the map will link to project-by-project information.

"Fishbowl" Still Cloudy

In an April 24 memo to agency staff, Jackson pledged that EPA would operate with transparency, as if it were "in a fishbowl." Jackson outlined broad principles for agency transparency, including instructions to staff to "make information public on the Agency's Web site without waiting for a request from the public to do so."

Whereas the release of data on school air quality and the early release of TRI data are agency initiatives, other data releases have come only following FOIA requests and legal action. The EPA has not explained what steps it will take to conform to the administrator's instruction to push out information without waiting for FOIA requests. Additionally, the agency still lacks a permanent assistant administrator for the Office of Environmental Information (OEI), a key department with many responsibilities covering the agency's public release of data.

Overall, the recent actions are a welcome change in openness from EPA. The information being released includes vital data needed by the public to hold the agency accountable, protect public and environmental health, and prepare for emergencies. However, it is not clear that these disparate actions comprise a coherent, uniform policy for public disclosure of environmental information.

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